By John Farmer Jr.
It’s become a ritual of gubernatorial transition in New Jersey: the incoming governor expresses “shock” at the dismal state of New Jersey’s finances, thus setting up his predecessor as the scapegoat for what will become — because it has been — every administration’s failure: to resolve New Jersey’s crisis of affordability.
Granted, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s way of expressing concern — by quoting then-Gov.-elect Chris Christie’s own words to Gov. Jon Corzine back to Christie eight years later — is a bit more pointed than in prior transitions. But the dynamic is unchanged, as is the stark reality that threatens to make New Jersey ungovernable: We pay too much in taxes, and it’s never enough.
New Jerseyans have been for years among the most highly taxed citizens in the nation, but our tax revenues cannot keep pace with the state’s commitments — to schoolchildren, to the poor, to the elderly, to public employees such as police, firefighters and teachers, and to the provision of local and county services.
To make matters worse, as the population ages and costs escalate, the amounts that the state pays in pension and health benefits to public employees at every level of government are increasingly leaving New Jersey’s economy — as seniors and others choose to move to warmer and more affordable states. Our population growth, among the lowest in the nation, cannot keep pace with that of other states or with steady increases in the cost of obligations, resulting in pressure to raise taxes further.
It isn’t hard to envision the result if nothing intervenes to change this dynamic: a death spiral, the statewide equivalent to what many cities have experienced, in which a shrinking tax base is asked to pay higher and higher taxes, which causes the tax base to shrink further. New Jersey lost one congressional seat as a result of the 2010 census; we will struggle to maintain our 12 seats after the 2020 census.
Hence the perpetual blame game. But the finger-pointing masks a fundamental question: Why have so many well-meaning administrations been unable to solve the affordability crisis?
The answer, in my opinion, lies in its seldom-mentioned root cause: our state’s stalled revolution.
Seventy years ago, the framers of our modern state constitution, weary of trying without success to advance New Jersey’s interest as a state, sought to overcome the centrifugal force of warring local interests by establishing several institutions with statewide reach, empowered to achieve statewide objectives.
They created an office of the governor with unprecedented power, with the ability to pocket-veto all legislation, to line-item veto appropriations, to appoint judges and prosecutors, and to reorganize the executive departments of government by executive order, among other powers.
They established the attorney general as an independent constitutional officer with statewide law-enforcement authority over the prosecutors and police…