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New York Post

 

Jersey's True Test

August 18, 2008

By Steven Malanga

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CAN ANYONE SHRINK STATE GOV’T?

NEW Jersey Gov. Jon Cor zine has been running TV ads that make liberal use of President Obama’s mid-July visit to buoy Corzine’s faltering re-election bid. But Corzine’s support continues to slip, with just 36 percent in the latest polls saying that they’d vote for him.

National pundits and GOP leaders see Corzine’s woes as a sign that voters are growing discontented with Obama’s policies. But the a real message in the Jersey election isn’t about ObamaCare or Obamanomics, but about the larger issue of whether big government can deliver on its promises.

Over the last four decades, an increasingly liberal electorate has transformed New Jersey from a low-tax, small-government state to a high-tax, high-spending place. But there’s been little payoff for residents.

Like New York, Jersey remains one of the country’s worst governed states, where government has proven effective mostly at protecting its own interests. If there’s an issue for voters nationwide in Jersey’s race, it’s whether the nation is in for the same fate as the federal government expands sharply.

It would be easy to dismiss what has happened in Jersey as a function of the state’s long history of political corruption. Last month’s indictment of 44 people, including two state legislators and three mayors, on bribery and influence-peddling charges was another reminder of this sordid reputation. GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie himself prosecuted more than 130 public officials when he was US attorney for the state.

But the ineptitude and inadequacy of Jersey government goes beyond corruption among a few dozen local officials. It permeates the state, including Trenton. Last year, Governing Magazine, the bible of good-government types, ranked Jersey’s government the third worst-managed in the country.

The state budget is a mess, the magazine noted, its infrastructure is falling apart, government has poor training and development programs for state workers -- and even the technology systems for governing the state are poor. All in a state with one of the highest percentages of college-educated adults nationally.

Jersey is an object lesson in how big government can come to care more about feeding itself than taking care of basics. A suburban state where cars and roads are crucial, it has the country’s worst-rated roads, according to the Reason Foundation’s transportation project. It’s no mystery: Jersey’s politicians have squandered the state’s transportation fund and neglected investment in roads.

If there’s one thing more basic than roads in local government, it’s education -- where Jersey wastes money liberally. In 2001, the Legislature created a massive $8.6 billion building fund to remake urban and suburban schools. But the state so mismanaged the program that it ran out of cash with only half the promised building done.

Jersey’s public schools spend more per pupil than those of almost every other state. The teacher’s union, one of the state’s most powerful political forces, likes to call this an example of big government that works. But Jersey’s schools, which boast high graduation rates and test scores in many districts, don’t add much value, according to Manhattan Institute studies.

Several years ago, the institute created an “education efficiency” index to judge school performance in each state, adjusted for characteristics like demographics and spending, because some students come to school with a distinct advantage over others. Adjusting for such advantages, the MI study ranked Jersey’s schools next to last in the nation.

Amid all this ineptitude, the state’s public sector has gathered ever more power and riches. With a pension system that lets many state workers retire at 55 with full benefits (including health care), Jersey has accrued a whopping $190 billion in unfunded pension and health-care liabilities. Yet this year, Trenton skipped making payments into the pension system, thereby further raising the long-term tab.

Corzine won in 2005 by promising that, as a political outsider who never climbed up through the corrupting ladders of local government, he could reform New Jersey. But reform requires taking on the very public-sector interests that dominate his own party -- and he never has.

Indeed, in a recent poll, only 13 percent of voters said he had any major accomplishments. But he did enact one of the largest tax increases in state history -- the latest in a long line of hikes that has done nothing to solve the state’s fiscal mess.

All of which dims his prospects for re-election in a state where even an electorate sympathetic to big government has had enough.

But a Christie win won’t be the end of the story, or even the beginning of the end. Christie’s own GOP has contributed to the state’s woes, especially in the sharp rises in state spending during the 1980s reign of Gov. Tom Kean, and in the way Gov. Christie Whitman let the state shirk its growing pension obligations in the ’90s.

As governor, Christie would have a formidable task taking on so powerful a public sector. The last US governor to try anything similar -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, who challenged California unions in 2005 with a series of ballot proposals designed to limit their power -- failed, thanks to withering attacks in a campaign in which unions spent some $100 million against him.

In short, this Jersey election is really a test of whether, once government grows to a certain size, reform is even possible.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/08182009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/jerseys_true_test_185113.htm?page=0

 

 
 
 

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