Bai's Take

Matt Bai has a very long and Corzine-centric but worthwhile account of the New Jersey governor's race in the New York Times magazine. Neighboring ...
by | October 23, 2009

Corzine.190 Matt Bai has a very long and Corzine-centric but worthwhile account of the New Jersey governor's race in the New York Times magazine. Neighboring Gov. Ed Rendell comes through, as always, with a good quote:

Those fellow governors who sympathize with Corzine are watching his campaign play out, hoping to find out whether the case for painful choices, as they see it, is any easier to make in this era than it was in the last. "If Jon wins, and I believe he deserves to, I think a lot of other governors will say, It's O.K. to tell people the truth; it's O.K. to give out some tough medicine," Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor in neighboring Pennsylvania, told me. "And I think more governors will be inspired to do that. If he loses, I think it will have a chilling effect."

Here's Bai's take on New Jersey's core issue, the state's chronically high and unpopular property taxes:

The question of why property taxes keep rising could keep a symposium of budget experts arguing for a week, but at its core, the property-tax problem hints at a deeper, structural flaw in the state, a defect that's more cultural than it is fiscal. Basically, New Jersey is sliced into so many local fiefs -- 21 counties, 566 municipalities, more than 600 school districts -- that it's just about falling apart. Some municipalities are merely dots on the map, maybe a mile wide, surrounded on all sides by a larger township. Some school districts are so small that they actually have no schools. (They pay larger townships to teach their kids.) And yet most little hamlets retain their own officeholders and paramedic squads, just as each tiny school district has its own administrator and school board. It would be far cheaper for everyone, of course, if these small jurisdictions merged into larger ones or agreed to pool their services, but no politician or fire chief actually wants to give up his part-time job, and the taxpayers in these districts -- despite moaning endlessly about their taxes -- routinely reject any suggestion that they should give up their autonomy.

This duplication of every imaginable service means that New Jersey residents are paying so many different entities, all in a single property-tax bill, that they can't keep them all straight. (It also, no doubt, adds to the state's legacy of corruption, since a lot of smaller entities are run by local machines and are subject to little if any public scrutiny.) And because each little jurisdiction cuts its own deal on contracts for teachers and cops, wealthier towns -- New Jersey has some of the wealthiest in the nation -- tend to drive up the cost of municipal contracts for everyone else, creating a vacuum that is constantly sucking local tax rates higher.

That vacuum, in turn, puts political pressure on the governor and the Legislature to do two irreconcilable things: cut state taxes and increase the amount of money they send down to the local level.


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