Budget process to benefit from bipartisan effort


By: Packet Editorial
   It’s a good thing neither the Giants nor the Jets played in the Super Bowl this past Sunday. If they had, Gov. Jon Corzine would have been obliged to place a bet with the governor of the state in which the opposing team plays. And if our governor had lost, he would have had to pay off.
   Gov. Corzine, as it happens, enjoys the kind of personal wealth that would have allowed him to ship off a case of saltwater taffy or a bushel of sweet Jersey corn to a rival chief executive without causing undue financial hardship. The same, however, cannot be said of the state he now governs. If he’d had to go to the Treasury to make good on his Super Bowl wager, the best he might have hoped for was an IOU.
   Fortunately for the governor, the Giants and Jets started their off-season long before the Steelers and Seahawks hooked up in Detroit. So he spent Super Bowl Sunday in the stands at Continental Airlines Arena, where he watched the Rutgers and Seton Hall men’s basketball teams do battle. The governor, a graduate of the University of Illinois, had neither a rooting nor a betting interest in the outcome. He was thus able to watch these two in-state rivals go at each other without imperiling his or the state’s resources. Meanwhile, the folks who keep a watchful eye on the state budget down in Trenton were no doubt busy figuring out how to slash state aid to the two institutions of higher learning these teams represent.
   Make no mistake about it: New Jersey is in deep, deep financial trouble — and higher education (which accounts for only about 5 percent of the total state budget) is by no means the only spending category that’s being primed for the chopping block. Remember that the governor promised during his election campaign to continue sending out property-tax rebates. Understand that the courts have mandated that the state spend about 30 cents of every dollar it collects to support public elementary and secondary schools. Consider that prisons and other institutions are eating up ever-larger portions of the state budget.
   Given these financial facts of life, there’s not a whole lot of discretionary spending that isn’t likely to be trimmed — if not cut to the bone — when the next state budget takes effect July 1.
   And all of this is quite aside from the small matter of the Transportation Trust Fund running out of money at approximately the same time, leaving the state without the means to build, repair and maintain highways, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure, as well as subsidizing mass-transit operations.
   As bleak as this picture is, there’s one small glimmer of hope — not that some new source of revenue will be found in the next five months to magically restore every worthy program to its rightful level of funding, but that next year’s budget will be the product of a truly collective, bipartisan process. The new Assembly speaker, Joseph Roberts (D-Camden), has announced that he won’t wait for the governor’s annual budget message to convene budget hearings — a break from the traditional legislative practice of awaiting the formal submission of a budget by the governor, then reacting to it. Moreover, Speaker Roberts said the hearings would consider both Democrats’ and Republicans’ suggestions for balancing the budget — an unusually welcoming gesture in a body that is not known for encouraging the active participation of (much less listening to) the minority party.
   Will this make next year’s budget any less painful? Probably not. But if it causes legislators of both parties to take a share of responsibility for crafting the budget along with the governor — rather than sit on the sidelines during the process, then criticize the product — it will be a decided departure from business as usual in the State House. We applaud Speaker Roberts’ overture, and we encourage his colleagues in both parties, as well as Gov. Corzine, to take this collaborative approach — and make it work.