Gov. Corzine, who is running for reelection this year, tried to season his "state of the state" address with optimism yesterday. But voters dealing with their own financial problems don't need the bad news sugar-coated.
For three years, Corzine has been trying to restore fiscal discipline in Trenton. The nationwide recession is making that difficult job even tougher, forcing Corzine to slash the state's current budget of $32.9 billion by $1.4 billion - or 4.2 percent. More cuts may be needed before the fiscal year ends July 1.
Instead of campaigning on an agenda of popular new programs, therefore, Corzine's job is essentially to keep New Jersey afloat for 12 more months. When 48,000 New Jersey residents received foreclosure notices last year, it's best to focus on the future.
"Our best days lie ahead," Corzine said. It's another way of saying, as he did moments later in the speech, "We've had to make many ugly choices."
His budget proposals for the coming fiscal year were a hodgepodge from across the political spectrum, all aimed at getting the economy back on track.
For example, Corzine wants to impose a one-year moratorium on developers' fees, which pay for affordable housing. Republican legislators, as well as some Democrats, favor the idea as a lifeline to the state's depressed building industry.
The governor also would exempt construction projects that are already under way from the 2.5 percent fee. Giving developers a temporary break from these added costs could save jobs, and seems worth trying. But that doesn't mean builders should give up on providing more affordable-housing units in high-cost New Jersey. Especially in a weak economy, when family budgets are stretched thinner.
To make his budget juggling act work, Corzine also wants the state Local Finance Board to become stricter in enforcing the 4 percent cap on property-tax increases. Municipalities routinely get around the cap by claiming one or more of the waivers permitted by the Legislature.
In exchange for towns limiting their revenue from property taxes, the governor wants to free up cash by allowing towns to defer their contributions to the pension system. Local pension costs have soared from $53 million in 2004 to $1.2 billion this year.
The one-time pension deferral is stalled in the state Senate, where Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) is opposed, arguing it only postpones the day of reckoning on curtailing public employees' retirement costs.
Sweeney's point is valid, but in the past three years, Corzine has secured more contributions to the state pension system than in the previous 15 years combined. When bull markets prevailed, previous governors ignored the state's obligation. Corzine's record says he can be trusted to be more fiscally responsible.
There have been bright spots. Among them - education funding has increased, and Corzine has made important strides in ethics legislation.