On taxing and spending

On taxing and spending
October 22, 2006 Star Ledger

The following exchange between former New Jersey Govs. Brendan T. Byrne and Tom Kean took place in a teleconference on Wednesday.

Q: One suggestion put forth by the governor's appointed legislative committees considering ways to lower property taxes was to put schools under county-wide juris diction. Would condensing more than 600 districts into 21, which proponents say would result in enormous savings, have a prayer of becoming a reality?

BYRNE: Once you put a school district that has a positive image with one that has negative image, you're going to get resistance -- and, frankly, that kind of resistance is worth worrying about.

KEAN: You're right. People care about two things when it comes to education. One is the reputation of their children's schools. The other is local control, wanting some say in the way their children are educated. And at the local level, in my experience, people push for more control, not less.

BYRNE: I'm told some Realtors will pitch a sale on the fact that there is one outstanding teacher in the local school, and people will buy on that claim. Even if they have no kids in school, they understand the perception of education in the community and its effect on the value of their property.

KEAN: A good neighborhood school has always been part of a Realtor's pitch.

Q: Sen. William Gormley has demanded records showing which elected officials are the biggest double-dippers in the state pension system. Is it finally time to reform a system that re wards officials who hold multiple jobs with more than one taxpayer-funded pension?

KEAN: First of all, what Gormley is asking for should be a matter of public record. The pub lic is entitled to see who has been abusing our pension system. For years, attempts at reform have been ignored. Now people are be coming aware of what this is costing the taxpayer. I say congratulations to Senator Gormley.

BYRNE: There was a buildup of public outrage when we read about lawyers who represent a half-dozen communities and are on the payrolls of each town they represent. In the old days, they did not get on the pension system. The timing is right for reform. If we can't get it now, we're never going to get it.

KEAN: We also need connected reforms. New Jersey is one of the few states to allow dual job-holding. Permitting an elected official to hold two full- time jobs is ridiculous. It's past time we did something about this invitation to corruption. We've had a very high tolerance for cor ruption in this state for too long.

BYRNE: Also, the courts have been entirely too deferential in not seeing the conflict and remedying it. They did that in one case, many years ago, then backed away.

KEAN: We've all been too deferential -- legislators, governors, the courts. And the press, for that matter. The press has not highlighted these cases, as they ought, to get them cleaned up.

Q: Some argue that pension and health benefits constitute part of the compensation package for elected officials whose base salary is on the low side. Would reform eliminate some good candidates?

BYRNE: I don't think compensation is a lure for candidates. People go into public service be cause it's public service. Originally, a member of the Newark City Council was an unpaid position, and there always were plenty of candidates.

KEAN: And you wouldn't want people who were doing it for the money. That's not the moti vation we want in public service.

BYRNE: On the other hand, officials whose jobs are full-time should receive a living wage.

KEAN: Absolutely.

Q: Do you think Gov. Jon Cor zine has his eye on the U.S. presidency?

BYRNE: I think he's developed close to a national reputation already. He's taken over New Jersey, reformed the state and cleaned up a lot of ethical issues. He has imaginative programs, top-flight people in his administration and is looking at situations that need reform. Lawyers complain to me that favoritism has disappeared.

KEAN: It's way too early to make that kind of judgment. He's done some good things and made some terrible mistakes. Some of his appointees have been awful, others have been very good. He's talked about what he can do for New Jersey's tax structure to get the tax burden down. If he accomplishes that, we can have this discussion.

BYRNE: It only took Woodrow Wilson two years to position him self as a viable candidate for president.

KEAN: That was Woodrow Wilson.

BYRNE: And, by the way, when Jon Corzine has made a mistake, he has been the first one to correct it.

KEAN: I wish him every success, but it is way too early to talk about the presidency. He needs to do more as governor, mainly about the tax burden. If he can't do that, he won't achieve any national ambition.

BYRNE: Tom, you travel the country and pick up newspapers. They talk about burdensome taxation everywhere.

KEAN: New Jersey's is worse.

BYRNE: Everybody talks about it, Tom.

KEAN: What everybody talks about New Jersey can prove.

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