Chris Christie became governor promising to "shake up Trenton" - exactly what is needed to overhaul the state budget. He has been praised for taking on the Trenton establishment and the NJEA. Christie, however, has been accused of being a "bully" for "waging war" on teachers, cutting school aid to the suburbs, and failing to resurrect the so-called millionaire's tax to help close the 2011 budget gap.
New Jersey's finances are a mess. That is undeniable. A massive state budget deficit, tens of billions of dollars of unfunded liabilities, and per pupil costs and municipal costs rising faster than the economy is growing, require a dramatic overhaul the way New Jersey does "business." And with nearly 600 municipalities and scores of state, county and local boards and commissions, New Jersey is a prime example of bureaucracy run amok.
To address New Jersey's highest in the nation property taxes, skyrocketing local education and municipal costs, Governor Christie will propose a serious of initiatives to rein in local spending.
The governor will propose a 2.5 percent cap on salaries and benefits for teachers, firefighters and police officers. He also wants a 2.5 percent annual cap on municipal, school and county tax hikes, unless residents override the cap. He also wants civil service reforms to curb the power of unions.
The governor's goals are laudable. Both spending and taxes need to be reined in. Union power needs to be curtailed. However, should municipalities, school districts and counties be subject to both state spending and tax caps? Emphatically no.
If schools, police and fire departments and libraries would raise all their funds from local taxpayers, then local officials, not the governor or state legislators, would be held accountable to their constituents for running a "tight ship and providing the services the people want." Local governments and school boards would raise the funds they need to run their institutions using whatever means they feel is "fair." In other words, we need to practice more "democracy" in New Jersey, not less. Taxpayers, not Trenton, should decide how much money should be spent locally.
School budgets are voted on by taxpayers every year. Shouldn't mayor and council members be held accountable as well and be reelected every year, or at least no more than every two years? And to really give taxpayers an edge against local union monopolies, teachers, police and paid firefighters would not be able to vote on school budgets. They would not be able to vote for mayors and council members as well.
And if local officials decide to place municipal budgets on the ballot as well, local government workers should not be able to vote in these elections as well. In addition, individuals and families who receive most of their income from government assistance would also not be able to vote on spending budgets and municipal elections.
What? Disenfranchise citizens? Yes. For decades, politicians have "bought" votes by promising special interest groups taxpayers' money. It is time to redress the balance of power in New Jersey, and put non-government citizens, the real bosses of government workers, in charge of local spending decisions.
Governor Christie has the opportunity to become the most successful chief executive in the modern era by devolving public decisions to mayors, councils, local school boards and other local institutions. Decentralizing decision making and reducing the state's role in local affairs would be consistent with the governor's promise "to turn Trenton upside down."
Murray Sabrin is professor of finance at Ramapo College. He was the Libertarian Party nominee for governor in 1997 and a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and 2008. Check www.MurraySabrin.com for more of his writings.