Here are three examples that illustrate why
ShapTalk: Guest Commentary
By Michael M. Shapiro
The governor works hard to create a fiscally responsible budget. He calls for legislative support for its passage. Many of the legislators whom the governor needs to vote for the budget make demands that "Christmas tree" items be added to secure their vote. A few hundred are included so that the budget will pass. As a result, it passes but with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional unnecessary spending, upending the governor's fiscally responsible good work.
The residents of New Jersey desire property tax reform -- and committees in the legislature are created to tackle the issue. Committees actually develop some interesting concepts that could help alleviate the property tax squeeze in New Jersey. These ideas are gutted by the legislature but property taxes are reduced through a spending gimmick that provides residents with a thousand or two off their property taxes, but with no meaningful permanent reform.
Some legislators propose a ban on dual office holding. Others publicly support the idea as long as all incumbent officials are grandfathered. After weeks of haggling, an agreement is reached. A last minute discrepancy between the Senate and Assembly versions of the proposal stalls a ban on dual office holding for the foreseeable future. Even if the ban is eventually enacted, current office holders will likely still be grandfathered. Since incumbents win re-election over 90 percent of the time, it seems that dual office holding will remain with us for decades.
These three situations all occurred during the past year and have resulted in chest pounding by legislators who proclaim that they are reforming how business gets done in Trenton. In reality, however, little has been accomplished save some favorable sound bytes politicians can use during the upcoming legislative campaign.
Why has this been happening? Unfortunately, it is against the legislators' own self-interest to reform Trenton and improve politics in our state. When dual office holding is banned, it cuts off an opportunity for legislators to benefit themselves at the public trough. A fiscally responsible budget may be the best thing for New Jersey's economy and its citizens, but it eliminates the ability of legislators to bring home "pork" for their districts and/or their contributors, supporters, and relatives. Similarly, reforming property taxes in New Jersey requires tough decisions if meaningful reform is to take place. What legislator up for re-election wants to make a tough decision and face the wrath on Election Day?
If true reform is going to take place in New Jersey, it will need to be led by citizens who demand more from our elected officials and hold them accountable. Aggressive law enforcement, from the Attorney General's office down to the municipal prosecutor, is needed to root out corrupt and/or unethical officials. It will take courage by those in power to be willing to upset the status quo to benefit the residents of our state. An active media that functions as a watchdog instead of a lapdog is also a necessity.
Meaningful reform can be achieved. It challenges all of us to play our part and work in concert for the betterment of our state and her future.