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Imagining a Marshall Plan for Our 'Ignored' Cities

At the NJ Spotlight on Cities conference, leading politicians agreed ‘we’ve ignored our cities’ and it’s time to make them a priority

baraka nj spotlight on cities
Credit: Amanda Brown
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka at the NJ Spotlight on Cities conference

New Jersey cannot reach its potential as a great state until it turns around its cities, former Gov. Thomas Kean told an audience gathered to discuss an urban policy agenda last week. “If we can make them an engine of economic progress, and not in any way a drain, that will do more to help this state and its budget than anything else we can be doing,” he said.

In order to address the lack of attention to our cities and the woeful underfunding of urban programs, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said we need an “urban Marshall Plan.”

The two spoke about the potential for an urban policy agenda at NJ Spotlight on Cities, a day-long conference held Friday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The event gathered leaders from across the state to talk about the problems — and potential solutions — to the issues of New Jersey’s urban centers. At the core of the discussion was the need for an urban policy agenda, what it should entail, how it should be paid for, and the likelihood that the next governor will consider it a priority.

The four candidates that have indicated interest in running for governor in 2017 spoke on the topic and were in general agreement that cities need to be on the priority list. Democrats Thomas Byrne, former ambassador Phil Murphy and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, together with Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, all agreed that demographic shifts point to the need for vibrant, financially stable cities — and they specifically pointed to the Christie administration as having let the cities languish for the past seven years.

The four candidates, as well as Baraka and Kean, were in general agreement as to what an urban agenda should look like. Jobs, education, and infrastructure were at the top of everyone’s list.

Baraka noted that the state has never fully funded the landmark Abbott decision, which called for using the income tax to support schools, rather than the inequitable property tax. He said, “People need to understand that you’re going to pay for it anyway — either you pay for it through education or you pay for it in crime, incarceration, social service programs.”

He and others called for workforce investment programs that offer incentives to companies willing to relocate to the cities or procure goods from urban-based firms.

The real question is how will the state be able to afford to fund urban revitalization.

“We can’t afford not to,” noted Wisniewski, who argued that the state has to stop making poor financial decisions such as granting major tax cuts in order to get funding for the Transportation Tax Fund passed. “We’ve got to stop making foolish decisions that will only hamstring us down the road,” he said.

“We’re flat as a pancake and profoundly unfair,” said Murphy, who argued that if the state focused on reclaiming its role of having an “innovation economy” and building new infrastructure to take advantage of our “natural assets” like being adjacent to New York, “the world’s largest economy,” we can provide two big economic engines to the cities.

“The notion of a Marshall Plan is not a crazy one,” said Murphy. He called the Christie administration a “one-trick pony” that has relied on $8 billion in tax incentives — many of them directed to the suburbs — as their economic growth engine. There are much more creative and diverse incentive models that we don’t deploy, he said.

Ciattarelli, the lone Republican, agreed. “We’ve ignored our cities. The amount we’ve spent on corporate retention and recruitment is staggering. There is a much better way to deploy that money.”

Ciattarelli suggested that cities should make it easy on developers by creating pre-approved development zones, with the help of county planners, and use eminent domain to seize blighted areas. “It needs to be turnkey for developers.”

Byrne, on the other hand, warned that as long as we have an underfunded pension system, all spare money will be devoted to fixing that problem. He argued that is why the state must find a way to solve this while still keeping its promises to employees. He noted that a pension reform committee he co-chaired came up with the suggestion that public employees be moved to a “gold” level Obamacare health program, which could save $1.4 billion, which in turn could be invested in cities or elsewhere.

Byrne also argued that there were irregularities in the state’s tax code which prevented investment in the state and these should be addressed.

Maybe one of the most interesting notions came from Murphy, who suggested the state should consider issuing 100-year bonds, given that interest rates are now so low. He also suggested that more could be done to find federal money to support such things as infrastructure investments. “We’ve let billions of dollars in federal funds fly by this state, from projects like the ARC tunnel, to Sandy relief and everything in between. We need to get a lot better at working with our federal delegation,’’ said Murphy, and he puts the blame on the Christie administration for not doing so. “We need an all-in strategy with lots of different pieces,” he said, and the big winner will be our large cities.

“The next couple of years won’t be pretty but we have enormous potential,” said Murphy.

Baraka seemed resigned that solutions won’t come overnight. “We need to gradually open the spigot (for cities) a bit,” he said, so we can turn the economy around. “What people look at as handouts are just giving people a leg up that will allow them to contribute. Not doing so cripples us —it hurts the country, it hurts New Jersey. Look at the shape we’re in … I just hope we don’t go backwards.”

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