Challenges Abound, Opportunity Knocks as Christie Prepares to Take Office
January 14th, 2010 by Peter Kasabach
- Republican Christopher J. Christie will be sworn in as the 55th governor of New Jersey on Jan. 19, succeeding Democrat Jon Corzine, whom he defeated in the November 2009 election.
- As the new governor takes command of the executive branch, both houses of the Legislature continue to be controlled by Democrats. The budget gap for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is projected at $8 billion. The state’s bonded indebtedness, at $33.9 billion, is the third highest in the nation. The state’s unemployment rate, at 9.7 percent, is at a 32-year high.
- In the face of these economic challenges, charting New Jersey on a path toward sustained — and sustainable — economic growth will require, among other things, transportation policies that address infrastructure needs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and discourage suburban sprawl; an urban revitalization plan that capitalizes on our cities’ unique assets; an affordable housing system that is simple, rational, fair and productive; a comprehensive strategy for reducing reliance on property taxes; and a resurrected state planning process that helps guide, connect and coordinate all of these actions.
Five Policy Areas Where the New Administration Can Make Its Mark
New Jersey Future’s Smart Growth in Transition series has detailed many of the challenges — and opportunities — facing the Christie administration in the areas of state planning, transportation, urban revitalization, affordable housing and property taxes. (To read the full text of each installment of the five-part series, click on the corresponding link.)
State Planning: After years of neglect, the State Planning Commission must be restored to a position of leadership, and the commissioners of key agencies — notably the departments of Environmental Protection, Transportation and Community Affairs — must not only understand smart-growth issues, but be directed to work together to achieve the State Plan vision for strong communities and a healthy environment. A key first step to accomplish this will be moving the commission and its staff, the Office of Smart Growth, into a neutral agency, such as Treasury, or on an interim basis under the auspices of the new lieutenant governor.
Transportation: One of the most immediate priorities is to reauthorize and replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, which finances the state’s $1.6 billion annual capital program. After years of borrowing against revenues dedicated to the fund, the new governor and Legislature must agree on a dedicated revenue source to meet the state’s most fundamental transportation needs. As transportation funding is solidified, transportation policies must be linked to other important state goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable land use, by employing strategies to increase transit ridership and reduce vehicle miles traveled.
Urban Revitalization: In the gubernatorial campaign, Christie unveiled his “Bringing Back Our Cities” plan for improving the quality of urban schools and expanding educational opportunities; providing affordable, quality housing for those who need it most; making cities attractive to business and job growth; and improving public safety and cutting violent crime. Employing a variety of incentives, rather than direct state appropriations, the plan envisions tying resources to benchmarks for progress. How this campaign plan will translate into administration policy remains to be seen; its success, however, in whatever form it takes, will rest in its recognition that New Jersey’s urban areas contain unique assets that should be built upon, as opposed to problems that need to be fixed.
Affordable housing: Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the Council on Affordable Housing and its formula for determining each municipality’s fair share of low- and moderate-income housing, most New Jerseyans agree that the state’s long-term prosperity depends on providing housing opportunities for hard-working people of modest means; that it is better for people to live near where they work; that developing housing opportunities should not damage the environment; and that concentrated poverty is a social and economic drain. A comprehensive state housing policy must go beyond providing opportunities for low- and moderate-income households, and must be closely correlated with the land-use policies embodied in the State Plan.
Property Taxes: New Jersey households pay the highest property taxes in the country, with school funding representing the largest expense item on the local property tax bill. The heavy reliance on local property taxes to finance public education drives intense competition for tax ratables among municipalities for commercial or age-restricted residential development — but not for housing that might attract more schoolchildren. The result is a housing shortage that drives up prices, and drives families seeking affordable housing to neighboring states. This structural problem ultimately requires a structural solution. Possibilities include regional school districts (as in Pennsylvania); county-run school systems (as in Maryland); regional tax-base sharing; municipal consolidation; shared services; increased state funding for education; or some combination of some or all of these.
As the Christie administration takes office and begins to tackle these and other pressing issues, New Jersey Future remains committed to serving as a practical resource. In 2010, we will continue to highlight timely research and offer reasonable solutions.