The Christie Sledgehammer

27christie-span-articleLarge (Demo job on an old bathroom in progress I'm blogging on an iPad, which already swallowed one long post. Disclaimer: typos will happen.)

Chris Christie is the hottest interview in town. Even Ann Currie on the Today Show was fawning over him last week. Matt Bai wrote a glowing profile on him in Sunday's NYT magazine.

There is no question that Jersey government is a mess. We have a HUGE budget crisis looming, sky high taxes, and a rabbit warren of local governments, which are run by semi-competent politicians.

These local governments have a great deal of power. They make major decisions and negotiate their own contracts with the cops and the teachers. Since everyone is so busy these days, these jobs go by default to local businessmen who hand out benefits to their friends. Secret bosses control the elections behind the scenes. Nobody has the time to attend council meetings, so these decisions are made in empty chambers. Because New Jersey is sandwiched between the Philadelphia and the New York City media circles, there are few journalists in Trenton, nevermind in these local government chambers.

Since Christie doesn't have much control over these local governments, he has handled this crisis by simply cutting off the spigot of money from Trenton that local governments need to balance their budgets. He's also putting a cap on how much towns can raise taxes. He'sforcing towns to make the tough decisions without really telling them what to do.

The trouble is that local politicians are no match for the unions. They are also locked into air tight contracts. So, these towns are dealing with their budget crisis by cutting foreign language instruction and busing and special education.

Loathing for Christie has been palpable during these town budget meetings, but he also has lots of supporters — nonunion workers, people with no kids in the public schools, people who simply can't afford $12,000 in property taxes. He gives good sound bites and has had many YouTube ready moments.

There is no question that New Jersey government is in dire need of reform. But Christie's plan, if you can really call it a plan, doesn't do anything to change the big structural problems. What we're going to end up with is the same inefficient, incompetent, corrupt system, but with less services for children and the elderly.


18 thoughts on “The Christie Sledgehammer

  1. Surely this is the time for the political science profession to do something constructive, since the politicians of both parties are too tied to special interests to handle the situation. So what is our hostess’s prescription? It has to be systematic change, not just “negotiate tougher contracts” or “eliminate corruption.” What would James Madison suggest? How can the interests of various factions be made to work for the common good?
    I have the feeling that political science professors are too wedded to the Democratic party to propose or support anything opposed by labor unions, but I would love to be wrong.

  2. Given how much control over budgetary matters is local-level, isn’t Christie doing exactly what a governor should be doing? What else could he do to fix the local-driven dynamics, other than trying to get legislation passed to take control of everything at the state level (which would presumably make the budgetary fights look minor)? If anything, by essentially locking the local governments into having no choice but to make their own cuts, Christie’s moves seem like a boon for local accountability, no?

  3. “What we’re going to end up with is the same inefficient, incompetent, corrupt system, but with less services for children and the elderly.”
    Really, though, isn’t it the children & the poor?
    The problem is that there’s no solution that’s acceptable to the “liberal” (if that’s what we think academic political scientists who are “wedded to the democratic party” are) without raising taxes.
    I do think that New Jersey (like New York) needs to have more state take overs of dysfunctional governments. For example like the receivership, or whatever, that currently deals with Nassau — in New York, right? Of course, one has to accept Christie having that control, but if I were a NJ resident, I’d probably prefer giving it to Christie than a small local entity that’s been infused with corruption and nepotism.

  4. Our city government has to have its budget approved by a state-appointed oversight board. Too bad they have managed to keep the pension out of direct state control (the state uses more reasonable assumptions in calculating things). Our schools have managed to avoid a state takeover (for sucking), but it looked like a real possibility for a while.

  5. On a related note, in the Democratic primary for my city council district, the choice is between the son of the previous mayor (I’m not sure he is old enough to rent a car at most agencies), the nephew of the mayor during the 80s, and some earnest reformer who will lose to the first guy.
    For county executive, the two leading Democratic candidates are the nephew of the mayor during the 70s and a guy who has promised to go to jail rather than implement a court-ordered property tax revaluation. The leading Republican candidate is actually under indictment for stealing from an old lady.

  6. Argh. Much hammering and banging around here with the bathroom renovation. I’ll do my best here, but it’s hard to think straight.
    What would Madison think about all this? Not enough space here to write about it. And I would probably drive everyone away with my long windedness.
    This isn’t a partisan thing. Both Republicans and Democrats have been feeding at the corruption trough in Jersey. And liberals don’t like the state of affairs anymore than Republicans.
    Reformers really need to change the culture of the state, which is a very, very hard thing to do. People have to start attending meetings. Smart people have to run for office. They need to convince people to consolidate their towns. They need to make a very boring topic, namely the budget, interesting to people. They need to support local media.
    What could political scientists be doing? They should be running for office, for one (just not me). They should be making very nice charts showing how much money could be saved by consolidating communities. They could be giving presentations to local governments on everything from urban planning to community development. They could be helping to point fingers at wrong doings. They could be showing examples of best practices from other states.

  7. They should be making very nice charts showing how much money could be saved by consolidating communities.
    The problem is that nearly all of the saved money comes from making some jobs redundant. Even the slowest ward chair’s cousin can figure out what this means. The metaphorical sledgehammer may be needed just to start the process.

  8. In my opinion, you can get a huge portion of the way there by requiring all negotiated expenses to be paid immediately. Right now, I am feeling neither anti-union or anti-management, but rather feel like they have both conspired to increase pay without increasing taxes by increasing future benefits (pensions). If every single expense had to be paid today (by, for example, having to buy an annuity today to cover future retirement payments), then there would be less room for “corruption” in whatever form. The corruption stems from being able to get a benefit today in exchange for a future cost that you won’t be around to have to pay.

  9. The PA state legislature was actually worse than the local governments. Back before the stock market crash, they used the rising fund balances to boost benefits without boosting contributions. They won’t take them back and that is the source of much of the shortfall.

  10. One prescription for Jersey is very clear and everyone knows it. The state is too federalized and has too many local governments. Corzine tried hard (perhaps not hard enough) to fold the townships together. But there is much power invested and people have identities caught up in them. But there is too much redundancy (as Laura has noted often in this blog).
    Jersey is also structurally cursed by being almost entirely a suburban community to two out of state urban centers (Philly and NYC), so it bears high infrastructural costs but has limited tax collection mechanisms (high income taxes paid to NY or PA, not NJ). NJ has the highest standard of living for any state in the union (I think that’s a stat I heard recently) and certainly the highest property taxes of any state.
    What is bankrupting the states is pensions and health care. Period. Health care costs are rampant and rising rather consistently above normal rates of inflation. Demonizing public sector workers can only go so far if a public sector is going to remain. Society will still need to bear the burden of health care and retirement costs in some way.

  11. And by standard of living, I meant cost of living. But I should also note that the standard of living in Jersey is probably better than the overall standard of living in other states that do not value public education as Jersey does.

  12. (high income taxes paid to NY or PA, not NJ)
    I had wondered if that was correct for PA as Pittsburgh isn’t able to collect income tax from people who don’t live in the city. But, it is correct for Philly, which may go a long way to explaining why Pittsburgh is broke.

  13. Same in New York: the State collects income taxes on New Jersey residents who work here, but the City does not.
    The reason is, the Supreme Court does not permit discrimination against out-of-state residents. So the State Legislature would have to authorize the City to collect taxes from all commuters, including those from Westchester and Long Island, or none. The state legislators from Westchester and Long Island will not allow NYC to tax their constituents, so the New Jersey residents also get a break. A good illustration of “virtual representation,” which, as is commonly the case, works because a non-discrimination rule is in force.

  14. Maybe I should sue the state arguing that there is no real difference between what the state code calls first class and second class cities. I’m upset that Philly can tax suburban workers at close to 4% and Pittsburgh only gets 1% (if they don’t work for a non-profit in a city where all the large employers are non-profits) plus $60 a year.

  15. I’m not sure about all this, but I think that NJ benefits a lot by being close to NYC and Phila. The areas of the state that didn’t get so badly hit by the recession were areas that had a lot of commuters. Without those cities, NJ would be in the same boat as many of the other rust-belt states.
    I’ve read some theoretical papers that suggest that we need to create regional government structures that cross state boundaries and to lessen the importance of both local and state government. So there would be a NYC metropolitan area government and a Phila government. Probably impossible to implement, but interesting concept.

  16. Theoretically, it might make sense to merge New York and New Jersey. Heck, throw in Connecticut. If you’d end up with one state government rather than 3, you might save money, and end the unequal division of revenue. State boundaries were drawn before electronic communications and the automobile, after all.
    I can’t see that adding one more layer of government managers would improve anything. It would add another layer of cost, and another layer of unfunded mandates.

  17. “If you’d end up with one state government rather than 3, you might save money, and end the unequal division of revenue. ”
    Yeah, right. You guys do that. And OR and WA will split into two states and take the extra 4 senators.

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