Gov. Corzine has a "hard sell" ahead of him, says the Senate president. He won't find a "rubber stamp" in the Assembly, says the speaker. And that's just people in his own party commenting on the governor's plan to hike tolls to solve the state's fiscal crisis.
"It's either the politically bravest thing or most politically foolhardy thing that's ever been tried," said Pat Politano, a Democratic political consultant.
He noted that the two biggest toll roads - the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike - cut through cities and counties that hold the bulk of the Democrats' base.
Corzine also proposed tolls on Route 440, which runs to Staten Island through Middlesex County, the heart of Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski's district.
Roger Bodman, a lobbyist who served in Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean's administration, said Corzine could expect resistance not just from Republicans but Democratic legislators who represent heavy toll-road users.
"That's going to create a political headache for these legislators if they're asked to vote for these things," Bodman said.
In a gesture that shows the governor understands his tough sell, he turned yesterday to Bob Franks, a former Republican congressman whom he beat in his 2000 U.S. Senate race, to head his "Fiscal Restructuring and Debt Reduction Campaign."
The governor plans to hold town meetings in each of the 21 counties to sell his plan and scheduled an appearance on 101.5-FM for 7 a.m. today.
He would increase tolls on the parkway, turnpike and Atlantic City Expressway by 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. The increased toll revenue would pay off $38 billion in bonds that would pay down debt and pay for mass transit, road and bridge projects.
Corzine will have to use every ounce of his credibility as a former CEO of Goldman Sachs and political power as governor to sell the plan he outlined during Tuesday's State of the State address.
But as hard as it may be to persuade citizens and lawmakers to live with the toll hikes, it is not impossible, said Jon Shure, who was former Gov. James Florio's communications director and is now the president of the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonpartisan think tank.
"Difficult policy choices have been made in the past in New Jersey - just not recently - and that usually happens in New Jersey when the governor takes the lead," said Shure.
Corzine's job is similar to the one former Gov. Brendan Byrne took on when he pushed for the income tax. Byrne's ratings tanked but he was reelected handily, Shure said.
"The people of this state have shown over the years if you're straight with them, they won't punish you," he said.
Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex), whose district is loaded with commuters who use the turnpike and parkway, said: "Without question this will be a hard sell. No one wants to increase tolls . . . but right now I don't think we have a more viable alternative."
Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) said the Assembly would thoroughly review the plan.
"Our obligation, our responsibility is not to be a rubber stamp," he said.
Shure and others said Corzine earned points when he explained his plan Tuesday as a businessman carefully defining the problem and framing the solution.
Some said the framing was prettier than the picture.
Corzine challenged those who didn't like the plan to come up with a better one. He brushed aside those who argue to make deep spending cuts by challenging them to come up with specifics and a better plan.
And, he shut out some alternatives. Corzine said that to raise enough money to fix the state's fiscal problems, he'd have to raise the income tax by 20 percent or the sales tax by 30 percent or the gas tax by 50 cents a gallon.
He also wants to freeze state spending, limit future spending to revenue growth, and limit future borrowing.
Rick Perr, the Burlington County Democratic Committee chairman, said he thought voters could be persuaded to endorse Corzine's plans.
"The number one thing on people's minds is 'I'm being taxed out of my house.' That's why people are willing to listen [to Corzine]. They're willing to pay more in some areas to pay less in other areas," said Perr.
And, in South Jersey where people don't rely on toll roads as much as they do in North Jersey, the sales job may be a lot easier, said Joseph Marbach, a political scientist at Seton Hall University.
"If you don't use the toll roads, you don't care," he said.
People won't feel the actual pain until 2010 - after the 2009 gubernatorial election.
Bodman, the Republican lobbyist quipped, "I thought somebody in the governor's office was thinking politically for the first time."