Last November, Chris Christie was elected New Jersey Governor in an election that many pundits, including myself, thought he would lose. In yesterday's school budget elections, however, Chris Christie achieved something even more impressive: He made history by forever changing the methodology of property tax control in New Jersey.
In my NewJerseyNewsroom.com columns of February 16 and March 21, 2010, I defined the Governor's approach to property taxes as "the New Christie Paradigm." Under this new and indeed revolutionary concept, cost control by local school district and municipal governing bodies, rather than state aid to municipalities and school districts, is viewed as the primary means of avoiding the need for property tax increases.
The growth of state municipal and school district aid during the past three decades has failed to keep property taxes low. Municipalities and school districts used their ever increasing state aid for new and expanded programs, rather than defraying the costs of existing programs. Property tax increases were implemented by municipalities and school districts to finance their skyrocketing spending.
All this changed with Chris Christie taking office as Governor in January, 2010. The new Governor had made it abundantly clear even during the transition that in order to close a record New Jersey budget deficit, he would be decreasing, rather than increasing state aid to municipalities and school districts. Governor Christie pledged that under no circumstances would he balance the state budget by enacting state tax increases, which had devastated New Jersey's economy during the past decade.
Under the New Christie Paradigm, the Governor emphasized that the school budget vote was the electorate's most important means of controlling school district spending and taxation. He urged the voters in yesterday's elections to defeat budgets they deemed to be excessive, particularly those in which the local teachers' union did not agree to a one year pay freeze.
It was evident even before the polls closed yesterday that the New Christie Paradigm had succeeded. The New Jersey electorate had been largely apathetic to school budget elections in the past, as evidenced by continuing abysmal turnout. Governor Christie had communicated to the electorate the effectiveness of the school budget vote as a tool to limit property tax increases. The citizenry of New Jersey responded to the Governor's message by going to the polls in record numbers.
After the polls were closed, the vote count showed that proposed school budgets had been rejected by the voters in about half the school districts in the state, a result truly unprecedented in modern New Jersey political history. The political and policy ramifications of these results will be enormous.
First, in spite of certain recent public opinion polls evidencing a decline in the Governor's popularity, yesterday's election results serve as a clear and convincing mandate for both the New Christie Paradigm on property taxes and the Governor's overall state Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal. Many Trenton insiders felt that Governor Christie was taking a major gamble by urging defeat of certain school budgets. If it was a gamble, it paid off big time yesterday.
Second, the election results will certainly at least reduce the extent of property tax increases in districts where the proposed budgets have been defeated. Appeals by the school district to the local municipal governing board and ultimately to State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler will certainly result in substantial budget cuts and resulting property tax increase rollbacks.
Third, yesterday's results constitute the ultimate evidence of property tax revolt among the citizenry of New Jersey. There can now be little doubt now as to the overwhelming popularity of Governor Christie's proposal for a constitutional amendment mandating a 2.5 per cent "hard cap" on property tax increases. If the Democratic Assembly and Senate leadership fail to provide the necessary legislative votes to place this proposed amendment on the November, 2011 ballot, they will be giving the Republicans a winning issue in the 2011 legislative elections.
There is a final point to be made about the Chris Christie style, which has indeed gained him national attention.
Christie's style is direct, down to earth, and populist. What few have noted, however, is that it is totally devoid of any racist or anti-urban aspects.
In fashioning the school aid component of his proposed Fiscal Year 2011 state budget, the Governor was careful to ensure that his proposed cuts had the same five percent budgetary impact on suburban and urban districts. There is absolutely no plausible case that can be made against this budget of having an anti-urban or anti-minority impact.
American liberals have often alleged that certain conservative politicians and/or talk show hosts have engaged in subtle or not-so-subtle racist appeals. There is no way of credibly making such a claim against Chris Christie. The absence of any racist tone makes the Christie style all the more appealing.
It usually takes at least an entire term for a New Jersey governor to establish a legacy. In the case of Governor Chris Christie, however, yesterday's election results have already given him a legacy on the property tax issue. This legacy should serve as a solid foundation in his further efforts to both attract economic development and make life more affordable in New Jersey.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations. He currently serves as Public Servant in Residence at Monmouth University.