After days of stories detailing New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine's recovery from a severe car accident, The New York Times weighed in Sunday with the first story I've seen trying to guess what his long recovery time will mean for state policy. Like many "looking ahead" speculative media pieces, I would argue that this one is a bit overheated in its conclusions.
New Jersey takes its June 30 budget deadline seriously. Last year, the government shut down for several days as Corzine and the legislature wrangled over a penny increase to the sales tax. Corzine won that fight, sleeping on a cot in his office and tirelessly repeating his message about fiscal solvency.
Nothing like that, clearly, is going to happen this year. Corzine had said he wouldn't sign this year's budget unless legislators agreed to end the practice of dual officeholding, which state senators and assembly members serve in other public jobs, such as mayors of their towns. Corzine might well have to wait another year to fight that fight, although that's not certain yet.
What about the budget itself? It's true, as Times writer Michael Cooper points out, that Corzine's accident is ill-timed for the upcoming rollout of his ideas about "monetizing" state assets, such as leasing the New Jersey Turnpike. But Corzine wasn't going to close those sales, so to speak, this year anyway. His administration hadn't yet laid out its plan and administration officials from Corzine on down realized they would have to begin a period of salesmanship to get the public on board and wear down a skeptical legislature.
Cooper also notes the state's horrible pension problems. The Times has done yeoman service in recent weeks revealing the true scope of the pension shortfall. But the story, I think, makes the sidelining of Corzine sound too dire, I think. It's true that his injuries make it more likely that the legislature will punt this problem into next year.
But the reality is that, with the entire legislature up for reelection in November, this wasn't going to be the year for strong medicine anyway. This year's budget was going to be the "eye of the hurricane," a relatively tame affair before the real battles next year. Corzine's accident only makes that a certainty, rather than a likelihood.
Part of Corzine's strength as governor drew from the fact that he is a wealthy man who owed nothing to the party bosses who are still strong in New Jersey. He entered public service after a hugely successful Wall Street career and came across to many voters as someone who acted with nothing but the best intentions. He had seemingly nothing to gain from the job of governor or pushing any particular policy.
It's possible that Corzine will rise from his hospital bed with this reputation enhanced. People may see him as someone who has recuperated from his injuries bravely to return to the tough task of whipping the state into better shape. That is a scenario that I wouldn't necessarily bet big money on, but it's worth holding in one's mind as we wait along with the Times and everyone else to see what will actually happen in the coming months.