Crowd does not give governor an E-ZPass

Corzine explains need for toll increases; residents pan program


Gov. Jon Corzine received a less than warm welcome at Marlboro High School on Feb. 4 when he came to Monmouth County to present his financial restructuring and debt reduction program for New Jersey.

PHOTOS BY CHRIS KELLY staff Anthony Strangia of Middletown makes a point as he addresses Gov. Jon Corzine during a Feb. 4 meeting held at Marlboro High School. Corzine presented his financial restructuring and debt reduction plan to an overflow crowd of about 1,000 people. PHOTOS BY CHRIS KELLY staff Anthony Strangia of Middletown makes a point as he addresses Gov. Jon Corzine during a Feb. 4 meeting held at Marlboro High School. Corzine presented his financial restructuring and debt reduction plan to an overflow crowd of about 1,000 people. Opponents of the governor’s plan have latched onto the part the program which calls for significant toll increases on the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway and the Atlantic City Expressway.

Corzine was met by protesters outside the school and a large crowd of opponents in the auditorium. A crowd of about 1,000 people came to hear the discussion. Those who could not be seated in the auditorium were directed to a room where they could hear the proceedings.

Introducing the governor was Congressman Rush Holt (D-N.J.), whose district includes part of Monmouth County. Holt was met with jeers because he had earlier announced his support of Corzine’s plan, which includes using the value of New Jersey’s toll roads to pay down 50 percent of the state’s multibillion dollar debt.

Gov. Jon Corzine makes a point as he explains his plan to pay down some of New Jersey's multibillion dollar debt. A 75-year program includes significant increases in the tolls that motorists who use the state's toll roads would pay. Gov. Jon Corzine makes a point as he explains his plan to pay down some of New Jersey’s multibillion dollar debt. A 75-year program includes significant increases in the tolls that motorists who use the state’s toll roads would pay. “There is no question that this will hit Monmouth County people hard,” Holt said. He was quickly drowned out by the audience.

Trying to explain his debt reduction plan to the audience proved to be hard for Corzine, who had to stop at times and wait for the roar of the crowd to die down before he could proceed.

The governor’s four-part plan calls for state spending for the next fiscal year to be frozen at the current year’s level; on future budgets, spending will not be allowed to exceed recurring revenue growth; all future debt issued without a dedicated revenue

source must be approved by the voters; and tolls will be raised (and/or instituted on the above mentioned roads) to pay down 50 percent of the state’s debt and to permanently fund statewide transportation improvements.

The average trip on the turnpike- estimated at three exits – currently costs $1.21, according to a press release provided by the governor’s office. Under the proposed increases that same trip would cost $2.05 in 2010 and rise as high as $12.50 in 25 years. It was noted that tolls on the Garden State Parkway have not been increased since 1989.

Prior to the public meeting in Marlboro, Corzine met with several local reporters at the high school and called New Jersey’s current situation a financial emergency that cannot be ignored.

“What I’ve tried to do is find a series of comprehensive steps that I think actually put us back on a pathway to health. It comes with burdens, (but) what we tried to do was find the least burdensome way to do that,” the governor said.

When asked if he believes people may avoid the toll roads because of the increase in tolls, Corzine said it must be understood that the plan is over a large span of time.

“When I got my driver’s license a gallon of gas cost 21 cents; today it’s approaching $3, higher in other places. I think you’re going to see changes over a period of time both in income and expenses that will explain some of those issues,” Corzine replied, discussing how the cost of living changes.

In his presentation Corzine went over what he referred to as shortsighted financial decisions that were made over the years, noting the belief in 2002 that inflation revenue figures would pay for new spending. He also said that the first $860 in household taxes goes to paying interest and debt payments. Graphs displayed the net tax-supported debt outstanding on a rise of roughly 13 percent since 1990.

Without taking action New Jersey’s transportation needs will have no money to fund them after 2011, Corzine said. He said $40 billion is needed over the next decade for safety and congestion relief purposes, including addressing 700 bridges in the state that are deemed to be deficient.

Corzine explained that the toll roads will still belong to the state and that a nonprofit public benefit corporation (PBC) will be formed with the purpose of managing the day-to-day operations of the roads. The PBC would have an independent, nonpolitical board of directors, he explained.

In projections of toll revenue over a course of nine years starting with fiscal year 2009, an estimate of $939 million was given forMonmouth County. The governor said this money would be reinvested into the areas it was generated, showing Monmouth County seeing a $2.9 billion return.

The money returned to the county would pay for improvement projects, according to information provided by the governor’s office. Local projects could include congestion reduction on Route 9 at the intersection of Craig Road and East Freehold Road in Freehold Township. Another project includes the advancement of a proposed Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex passenger rail line.

Anticipating the public’s cry to cut state spending (New Jersey’s budget is about $33 billion), Corzine’s presentation included what would happen if costs were cut to various areas. He discussed closing hospitals and the effects of that action, cutting money to higher education leading to an increase in tuition and cutting the amount of municipal aid, which could lead to higher property taxes.

“The choices are not as broad as I think the public likes to make them out to be and they come at some cost. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do and we have gone to work on a lot of those and we’re going to go more deeply,” Corzine said during the press conference portion of the event.

“I’m open to alternatives, responsible alternatives, that get to much of the same result. I’m open to other elements that maybe won’t rely so much on tolls if people are willing to accept the fact that’s going to have a cost, too,” the governor said.

The governor went over possible alternatives that would produce the same results, including a 30 percent increase in the sales tax or a 45- to 50-cent increase in the gasoline tax.

When the meeting was opened up to the members of the public for comments, people rushed to form lines, eager to express their opinion on the governor’s plan.

The first question of the night was posed to the crowd. The man who stood at the microphone asked for a vote by applause to gauge the plan’s popularity. A few sounds of approval were soon drowned out by the cry of disapproval.

Mike Campion of Millstone Township asked the governor how he expects to be trusted when new costs are still added.

“During this term, as recently as the last couple of months, you increased the judicial salaries. You OK’d the funding in four days to add a half billion dollars to educational funding. Every time I turn around it seems that we don’t stop adding stones to the boat,” Campion told the governor.

Corzine explained that a court mandate required the state’s poorest school districts, known collectively as the 31 Abbott districts, to receive significant levels of state funding. He said the only way to get past the state funding inequity that subsequently developed between the Abbott districts and the other 580 school districts was with a new funding formula.

On the judicial salary point, Corzine said he and the members of the Legislature made the decision that it would be better to have judges who would remain in their positions and make fair decisions over a long period of time.

Many comments made by members of the audience who came forward to speak indicated their lack of faith in New Jersey’s legislators. Citizens requested that the debt restructuring proposal be placed before the public as a referendum.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth and Mercer) was met with applause when she told Corzine and those present that she stands in opposition to his plan.

Beck spoke about what she said was $1.5 billion in cuts that had previously been denied by the governor.

Corzine called some of Beck’s proposals illegal cuts and later explained that some of the reductions the senator suggested were in direct violation of court orders.

Beck continued, saying, “We must restructure the liability for our pension and health benefits. Last year you were in negotiations with the union and you had an opportunity to do that and you did only very minimal changes. That liability grows each and every year. We must statutorily change for new public employees what benefits they receive when they retire so that liability starts to even out.

“My question is this: This is a 75-year (debt reduction) plan; you can’t predict what new governors and new legislators will do with this $40 billion of debt, which is not paying off anything. This is an AmEx card to pay off your Visa Platinum,” Beck said.

Corzine told Beck he was more than happy to work with the Senate and theAssembly.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (RMonmouth and Mercer) told Corzine, “There’s not a person in this room who when you were elected, whether they backed you or not, wasn’t pulling for you. We know New Jersey faces problems. And we all hoped that coming from a financial background you would come up with a cre- ative way to solve our problems.”

O’Scanlon said transferring the burden of the Garden State’s debt onto the backs of toll payers is not the creative solution that was hoped for.

Explaining that behind the anger was fear, Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Monmouth and Mercer) said that based on mail she had received from residents, people are afraid that they will be “nickeled and dimed” out of the state.

Later in the week Republicans in the state Senate and Assembly announced their unified opposition to the governor’s debt reduction plan.

At one point during the meeting aMiddletown resident stood up and gave the governor a plan with possible options. Anthony Strangia said while considering plans put forth by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he wondered why New Jersey was not getting a cut of the money that will be collected by the Port Authority.

“Just for your curiosity, 36 million people used Newark airport last year. Those planes were coming in and letting out their fumes over my head. What’s wrong with an environmental impact fee? Three bucks on every airline ticket. Let the damn Port Authority collect it for us! You don’t have to have a bureaucracy, you don’t have to have another state agency and you don’t have to mortgage our future,” Strangia said to applause from the crowd.

He also suggested levying an environmental impact fee on trucks that use New Jersey roads to reach their destinations.

“When they hit the last toll booth they pay a five buck fee. They’re polluting my air, they’re killing me,” he said.

Strangia concluded his remarks by saying that New Jersey residents traveling within the state should not pay.

Corzine acknowledged that Strangia had offered some good ideas and clarified that there are presently fees on landings at the airports.

After the meeting Marlboro Township Council President Jeff Cantor offered his views on the toll hike plan to a reporter.

Upset that the state budget has gone up 50 percent in five years, Cantor said freezing spending now will not really help the situation. He indicated that would have been something to do several years ago. He also spoke about pensions for new state workers and questioned why New Jersey’s retirement age did not match the federal retirement age.

“I’m sorry, but workers have to pay these days, health costs have gotten so out of hand that it has to be in line with what private industry is doing,” Cantor said. “It’s not the prudent thing to do, to raise tolls, there are other ways.”