By Senator Declan O’Scanlon
So. This is what it’s come to. Incredibly, we just passed one of the largest tax increases in the history of the state…and we’re no more than one, infinitesimal, step closer to sustainable solvency than we were the day before. And trust me, we are very ($ billions) far away. We don’t need infinitesimal steps, we need bold leaps…and we need bold leadership willing to make them.
Our Governor, who I held out hope might lead us in the right direction based on the reasoned work he did on his 2005 pension reform report, has – at least this year – philosophically left the sinking ship (Google: Francesco Schettino) into which he is bailing….the wrong way. The rest of us don’t have his hundreds of $ millions, which at the same time precludes us from not caring how much it costs to stay here, and prevents us from leaving. He has proposed phasing in $ billions of new spending on programs no one is clamoring for, and that we can’t afford even if they were. He has prioritized these new programs over paying the bills for programs to which we’ve already committed. You know, pesky things, like fully funding our pension system and 911 communications and special education and property tax relief. Unsexy stuff like that. And the people who will suffer most from these misplaced priorities – public workers whose pensions are at dire risk – are miraculously complicit in the building of the next floor of this house of cards.
I’ve spent more time analyzing the state budget than just about anyone else. I know the depth of our dilemma and just about all the options. Those public workers who see the path the Governor has, so far, taken us down as the one to salvation are myopically sowing the seeds of their own fiscal destruction. Their families’ long-term welfare is at stake here. Time to act like adults. In reality, those of us championing working with public workers on reforms that will lead to long term viability of our state budget, and workers retirement and health benefits systems, are the good guys. The reality is that if we take action quickly, the choice isn’t stark. Public workers need not fear, taxpayers need not cringe. Although I’m heartbroken we lost – in this budget cycle – a true opportunity to start down a path to solvency, and a positive political career defining moment for Governor Murphy (it might still prove to be career-defining, I’m certain it won’t be positive), there is still hope, for him and for the rest of us.
Time for us all to accept the math. I realize that we’ve kicked the can down the road for decades. I get that it’s tempting to think we can continue to do so. But that’s simply not true. Our time is running out. We are one mild recession away from the bottom falling out. We’ve never been here before. The reforms we enacted in 2011 – although hated by public workers – bought us some time and were a logical and necessary first step toward saving state pension systems and NJ’s economy. But they didn’t solve the problem. We know what that next steps are. And they are the ONLY steps. There simply are no other options for substantial cost savings than another round of pension and health benefits reforms. And these reforms can be done in a way that is fair and not life-crushing to public workers. Failing to fix this now will be. Those arguing to “find another way” are torturing a way to avoid saying “inflict massive, economy and job killing tax increases” on NJ. Sorry folks. The choices are stark, but someone needs to force us to face reality before the choices devolve into ones that inflict an exponentially larger level of pain – on public workers and taxpayers.
Interestingly there is a glimmer of hope. The sunset of the tax increases proposed by the Senate President might be a signal that he gets it. He has said he included the sunset not because of some fantastical, logic-defying presumption that revenues will magically permit such a mathematics-defying feat. He has actually said he wants the sunset to force us to face the need for reform. That’s a big deal if he means it. So might the recommendations – due by the end of his month – of the bi-partisan group of senators he put together last year to recommend implementing of cost-saving measures with teeth.
That the Governor has not only failed so far to embrace the calls for reform, but tried to twist the tax increase sunset into something irresponsible, is telling, and damning at the same time. His recent announcement that he’s ready to enact some health benefits reforms may be a sign he gets it too. But color me skeptical. The reforms he’s so far supported amount to frittering around the edges. His announcement of yet another task force to “study” health benefits reform is a colossal act of timid redundancy when what we really need is simple acceptance of the facts we already know and a leader gutsy enough to take action.
We must praise leaders who fight for the reforms that we all know deep-down must happen. We must hold those that abdicate their responsibility accountable. This is a critical moment for New Jersey. This is a critical moment for our childrens’ futures – if they are going to be able to remain, and prosper, in this state we love.