Friday, January 18, 2008

Who but Corzine will sell his toll hike plan?

After unveiling for the state legislature last week his long-awaited plan reduce New Jersey's massive debt while also generating new funds for roads, bridges, tunnels and mass transit, Governor Corzine has taken to the public stump. He's holding town meetings across the state, working earnestly to to sell the toll-hike plan to wary state residents.

It's a Sisyphean endeavor. The public is disheartened and distrustful. Property taxes are viewed as crushing. Recent census figures validate the conventional wisdom that many families with substantial incomes are leaving the state. Business leaders say New Jersey is no longer viewed as a good place in which to invest and signs of a looming national recession and endless spending for a war in a far-off and hostile nation only deepens the gloom.

It's still early in the debate, but so far the governor doesn't seem to be getting much political cover from his fellow Democrats in the Legislature or from members of the traditional Democratic power base among the trade unions, teachers, public employees, urban mayors, social-program advocates, environmentalists and others. In fact, the only public figure to announce that he'll be working to gain support for the plan is a Republican--former NJ Assemblyman and Congressman Bob Franks. Strange bedfellows indeed.

It may be that traditional Democratic interests are, like everyone else, still numb after hearing Corzine's analysis of just how bad things are ("more than $30 billion in debt and staggering unfunded pension and health care liabilities"). Or maybe they're worried about the implications of his one-year spending freeze. Or they're cautiously monitoring the mood of the electorate, waiting for signs of moderation or even begrudging acceptance of the plan.

New Jersey Future, an organization committed to 'smart growth,' is one of the first public policy groups to venture into the discussion. On January 17, its twice-monthly e-publication Future Facts provided a litany of economic factors that support Corzine's approach, but the overall tone of the piece is fairly dispassionate and, while it offers no objections to the Corzine tolls, it raises some questions for public debate, including:

"How do toll increases compare, in terms of fairness, equity and progressivity, with raising other potential sources of revenue: the gas tax, the income tax, the sales tax? Would it make sense to raise the gas tax along with the tolls, thus spreading the cost across all motorists, not just those who drive on toll roads? "

You can read the Future Facts piece here. The governor's "State of the State" speech is here.

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