It’s gonna be expensive, no matter how you define it

Coda • GREG BEAN

As former President William Jefferson Clinton famously explained during his 1998 grand jury testimony in the Monica Lewinski affair, “it depends on what the meaning of is is.”

In other words, in politics, it all depends on your definition.

We’ve got a little of that going on in New Jersey these days as our new governor, Chris Christie, struggles to close a budget deficit he says is approaching $11 billion.

Nobody would argue that New Jersey is circling the financial drain, and I can’t gripe about his determination to cut the budget — but let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on.

Take the popular property tax rebate program, for example. Christie promised during his campaign that not only would he preserve property tax rebates, he’d restore some cuts to the program that were made by his clay-footed predecessor, Jon S. Corzine. But now he says he’ll do away with property tax rebates entirely this year, and next year they’ll be handled as credits on our tax bills instead of checks in the mail.

Christie won office largely on the pledge that he absolutely, positively, would not raise taxes, but what does that sound like to you?

Fact is, I’ve thought the property tax rebate scheme was sketchy for years. Instead of coming up with something to make us feel good, they should have just reduced taxes to begin with. That would have made more sense, because we’d have use of our money instead of letting the state use it until they gave some back.

But if they’re keeping that money now, it means we’re paying more in taxes, and there’s not enough lipstick in the world to make that pig any prettier. I guess it’s not a tax increase in the strictest sense of the word, but it depends on your definition.

And let’s not kid ourselves, we’re gonna be paying a lot more in other areas as well.

Just look at what’s happening to the 900,000 state riders who depend on NJ Transit. Facing a $300 million shortfall in the budget year that begins July 1, and a $33 million reduction in state subsidy, riders have been told to expect fare hikes of around 25 percent.

And there’s not enough ink at the printing plant to detail all that’s going to happen to the state’s schools and colleges. Looking at a reduction of more than $800 million in state aid to K-12 public schools, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators says that schools will certainly have to look at decreasing services and increasing fees. For example, parents will likely have to start paying for things like athletic uniforms and club fees, and class sizes will likely increase.

But because the lion’s share of school budgets are fixed costs like debt services, pension contributions and mandates, there’s no way local school districts and governments are going to avoid raising taxes that are already too high. Christie has proposed amendments to the state Constitution that would cap property taxes at the local, school and county level, but even if his proposals are adopted, they won’t help us that much in the short term.

And those are just a couple of areas where we’re actually going to be paying more to help the state government live within its means. If you read Christie’s 88-point plan to balance the state budget, you know that a lot of the points make perfect common sense, but lots of others will end up costing us money, like the NJ Transit situation.

Don’t get me wrong; I support Christie’s determination to bring the state budget to heel. It should have been done a long, long time ago.

But as we go through the process, I just hope his administration doesn’t try to dine out on the fact that he’s keeping his no-tax-hike pledge. We might not see an official increase in state taxes, but our wallets are going to be considerably lighter, all the same.

• • • I’ve been getting a kick out of those Microsoft commercials for Windows 7, where ordinary people take credit for getting Microsoft to listen to their suggestions in developing the new software. “Windows 7 was my idea,” they all say.

Well, if they can take credit for Windows 7, I guess I can take credit for Bank of America’s recent announcement that as of July 1, it will end overdraft fees to customers who charge more on their ATM debit cards than they have in the bank. After that date, purchases that would overdraw an account will simply be declined, instead of being paid for an automatic $35 overdraft fee.

Regular readers will remember that I wrote about this very subject just a few weeks ago, and noted that people can be charged hundreds of dollars in fees on very small overdrafts. I called banks black-hearted varmints and said they ought to be ashamed for their unmitigated greed.

Well, apparently the bigwigs at Bank of America read my column and were ashamed, because two short weeks later, the company announced it was getting rid of the fees, unless customers agree to them before they get their money or make their purchases.

So I feel confident in saying, “Bank of America’s new overdraft fee policy was my idea.”

Note to Bank of America: I’m available to be in a commercial like those Windows 7 people, and you’ll find I’m much more reasonable in terms of compensation than your customer service people used to be when folks would complain about overdraft fees.

• • •

The big talk at lunch with a group of colleagues recently was the story that a mountain lion was reportedly sighted in Manalapan. Although it hasn’t been confirmed whether the animal seen was really a mountain lion, or something else, this is a whole lot more interesting than a coyote sighting.

It’s funny that there might be a mountain lion stalking the woods of Manalapan, where I’ve often noted that local politics is so vicious, some of the politicians actually eat their own. It’s therefore fitting that there might be a hungry feline predator looking to eat them.

Mmmmm! Tastes like chicken!

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.