While our state political collective is debating the best way to reform the unfair and burdensome property tax system here in New Jersey, it will be important that state Democratic leaders not forget the other areas of reform the state’s voters are desperately seeking. When a property tax solution is finally proposed there will be a great need for public trust and support for whatever is offered up as sustainable reform. To put it shortly, there will need to be a strong well of public capital to draw from beyond just the political capital needed to get it passed. With public cynicism running high about government and the effectiveness of our public officials, Democrats may win a short-term victory on property taxes but lose the war on public confidence.
If we were to ask the average New Jersey voter about top issues property taxes, education and ethics would be at the top of the list. The first two are difficult, intertwined and filled with special interests that will try to frame any solution as a failure before the ink is dry. But what about ethics reform? There is strong support from the public for more work in this area. Continuous headlines, day after day of more ethical lapses by public figures from both parties shows that there is definitely more work to be done. Voters in the recent budget crisis gave Governor Corzine tremendous backing because largely the media portrayed the standoff as a fight against party bosses and political power brokers.
Democrats at the national level are on the offense and will pick up seats in this mid-term election and possibly even take back one or both chambers of Congress. This is partly because of big issues such as the war in Iraq, but also because of support for reform in the face of congressional ethical lapses that have left voters feeling that the country is on the wrong track. Menendez’s campaign for U.S. Senate has rightly used the Bush Administration’s cronyism and political deals and Tom Kean Jr.’s questionable fundraising as campaign issues to highlight the ethical failings of the Republican Party.
So why are we so reform shy at the state level? There has been a lot of success at the local level mostly due to strong efforts by ordinary citizens. It has been often observed that political reform usually only comes about as a response to strong public pressure in the aftermath of a scandal or from pressure from an opposition party. This seems to be what is happening in Washington and Democrats are leading the way. But can a party in power reform a political system that some may argue gives it many benefits without waiting for the next big scandal or public outcry?
I believe state Democratic leaders can and must take that important first step during these property tax reform hearings. Eliminating special perks in the pension system for public officials or the politically connected is one direction. Then further reforming the use of professional services and examining their role in the rising costs of property taxes. Encouraging or requiring competition at all levels of government is just as important as eliminating pay-to-play as political donations always seem to find a way around. Ending the revolving door between government and the private sector, especially in public contracting and lobbying. It used to be former legislators became lobbyists after they left office, its now more common for lobbyists to run for election to the legislature.
These are by far not the only reforms needed. There are numerous bills ending dual office holding, closed government, wheeling, nepotism and other nefarious practices from both parties languishing. Property tax reform will likely continue to be debated into next year. We can help build the public capital needed to win that debate by gaining the moral high ground and pass ethical reforms this year. Our national Democratic brothers and sisters have embraced them, we cannot continue to shy away here at home. Not only is it the right thing to do for New Jersey, but it will help us reach our other ideals within the Democratic Party as well.
We can make these first steps where there is a clearer link between ethics reform and property tax reform, and frame the wider debate as ending entrenched political “haves” and empowering the public “have-nots.” In taking on this fight, we may get the public support needed to once again overcome the special interests waiting to kill reform behind a closed door in a smoked filled room. As Democrats, as the party in power, and as the party that represents the little guy, the underdog – we can and must reform the system or else lose the war to the political bosses and status quo and still end up footing the bill.
Dan Benson is the Democratic Municipal Chairman and a former Councilman from Hamilton Township