We need to throw off 'home rule,' share resources, and govern smartly if we want a future.
Guest Viewpoint by Jon Shure
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At first, these two news items might not seem to be connected. One is the controversy over Linden providing a $56,000 Cadillac for its mayor to use in traversing the 10.8-square mile Union County city. The other is that Lawrence Township in Mercer County is privatizing its ambulance corps because there aren’t enough volunteers to staff it.
What these have in common is that they are two more on the ever-growing list of examples showing how unsustainable New Jersey’s institutional arrangements have come to be. By that I mean this won’t remain a first-class state if we continue to divide ourselves into the tiniest possible pieces for providing local services and educating children. It’s time to expose this 18th century delivery system -- and end it.
New Jersey’s fetish (it’s really more that than the commonly used phrase “love affair”) for home rule is anachronistic and counter-productive. It narrows our horizons, costs us money and it isn’t a stretch to say that it often contributes to the corruption that plagues public life.
Last year, we at New Jersey Policy Perspective partnered with Demos: a Network of Ideas and Action on a report calling for an end to allowing one person to hold two elected offices. Maybe that’s going to happen, if the Senate and Assembly can finally agree on how many current officeholders they want to exempt from such a ban. The project really helped to open my eyes to the thicket of other issues along with dual office holding that squeeze a lot of the efficiency and hope out of governing New Jersey. Soon we’ll complete a report on people who hold elected and appointed office -- another area where scrutiny and changes are needed.
The Legislature recently completed something it calls property tax relief. Arguably, it does provide decent amount of money for most households, assuming the funding source lasts -- and it might not.
But a lot of the best work of the four-month legislative session that produced the package wound up on the cutting room floor in the scramble to win the votes for passage. Over the summer and fall, you actually heard some legislators question whether 566 municipalities and 613 (or 616, or 618 -- everyone seems to have a different number) school districts make sense. There was a proposal for a pilot program for one countywide school district in New Jersey, borrowing from states such as Maryland, where there are 24 counties and 24 school districts. But they backed away, and that’s unfortunate because as bad the overall tax system is in New Jersey (and it’s pretty bad), it’s really a symptom of a larger problem: our state’s fragmentation.
There’s a money side to it, of course. In most other states, more of what people get from government is paid for at the county or state level than in New Jersey, meaning a better chance the money comes from broad-based taxes more based on ability to pay than is New Jersey’s notoriously regressive local property tax levy. Bergen County, with its 70 municipalities, 68 police chiefs and more pieces of firefighting apparatus than New York City certainly costs more to run than it should,
But it’s not just the money. It’s the narrowness of telling people that if they can educate the kids in the five square miles of their town then their job is done. It’s cut-throat competition for development in hopes of lowering property taxes, where towns wind up cutting their own throats through sprawl and congestion. It’s the tangle of jobs, sinecures and positions through which some people accumulate power and pensions at the expense of average citizens who are too busy to attend council meetings or analyze over municipal budgets and bidding specifications. New Jersey is starting to resemble something as cumbersome and creaky as the Ottoman Empire.
It’s the reality that while this is one of the nation’s most diverse states, it’s also one where minority public school students are less likely than in almost other state to go to a well-integrated school -- a consequence of having so many small, homogenous districts.
In New Jersey we like to think small. We encourage it.
Not everyone wants to hear that. People don’t like hearing they live in a town that really is too small to support itself and that promotes a way of thinking that’s too small too. But, what if New Jersey did things more like other states? What if we collected more money from the state income tax and less from local taxes -- and then spread the money around more according to need? What if towns shared the revenue from big developments and got together to decide where they should go? What if towns shared police and fire departments and other services too? What if we planned on a regional, rather than local basis?
While I’m on a roll, what if some towns disappeared completely? We have a lot with fewer than 5,000 people, even with less than 1,000 people. What if we said a town below a certain size gets no state aid because it’s a waste of our money to subsidize that kind of lifestyle?
Some of this has been done on a small scale. But mostly we go on patching up pieces instead of dealing with the whole enchilada. It’s easier. It doesn’t challenge the way people think about things. It pretends there isn’t a problem. Instead, wouldn’t it be great if, some day, someone ran for Governor of New Jersey saying something like this?
I believe we need to get our tax system in order so New Jersey can grow and prosper and our people can reach their full potential. I know my opponent will accuse me of wanting to raise taxes. So be it. And yes, it is true that some of the wealthiest would have to pay more in state income tax. First of all, they can afford to pay more of their fair share; second, their property taxes would go down too.
And I am ready to challenge our system -- our heritage of home rule -- and point out how it fails us, that it plays to attitudes and beliefs that hold us back and keep us apart. I can’t promise this job will be finished during my time as Governor, or even in my lifetime. But I do know that it will never be finished if it isn’t begun.
I’m willing to raise these issues and take these chances because of two things that I know are true. One is that the people of this state are ready for an honest debate over this fundamental issue. They are ahead of the politicians. They can handle the truth and make decisions based on broad understanding of alternatives rather than slogans and accusations.
The other is that I believe anyone who runs for New Jersey’s highest office without addressing these concerns shouldn’t want the job and doesn’t deserve to have it. Whoever wins this election, these problems will be waiting on the other side of the door the moment you walk in on the first day -- whether we have the guts to talk about it now or not.
And I’m willing to say these things because I believe New Jersey will never be all it can be until everyone who lives here has a chance to be all they can be. It is time to think of New Jersey as one big community, not 566 separate, distinct places whose fate isn’t tied to that of its neighbors. It’s time to realize that what we have here when it comes to taxes and providing the best, most cost-effective services is not 566 little problems, but one big problem -- a state problem that demands a state solution.
Okay, that’s a campaign speech you won’t hear anytime soon. We might go on electing people who keep relying on gimmicks, hoping for miracles and praying the economy comes back while they are in office. That’s not good for what this state needs. The fragmented way that we provide for local government services and raise the money we need is more than a quaint anachronism. The longer it takes, the harder it gets. I’m not saying it will be easy, but I’m certain that 10 years after it’s finished few will miss the way it used to be -- and this will be a better place to live.
In the meantime, some municipality in New Jersey has the state’s 566th best mayor or the 613th best school superintendent. Could it be yours?
Jon Shure is president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton think tank whose work can be seen at www.njpp.org.