Call it a plan to formulate a new plan.
Democrats in the state Senate yesterday announced they intend to explore the effect that more investment in key areas, — such as transportation, preschool education and neighborhood revitalization — could have on a state economy that’s still struggling to recover from the last recession.
The Democrats’ launch of what they’re calling “New Jersey: Investing In You” comes after more than five years under Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has held the line on taxes and trimmed some spending in an attempt to stimulate growth and more private-sector investment.
Despite some recent gains, New Jersey still hasn’t recovered all of the jobs lost to the last recession, and the state’s unemployment rate remains higher than the national average.
And a recent survey of revenue collections also showed New Jersey is one of 27 states still taking in less than their pre-recession peaks.
New Jersey’s sluggish economic recovery has been a sore spot for Christie on the campaign trail this year as he seeks the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), kicking off the “New Jersey: Investing In You” initiative during an afternoon news conference at State House yesterday, said it will take more investment in targeted areas to yield the kind of economic growth that other states have enjoyed in recent years. The initiative will focus on transportation, preschool education, college affordability, public-private partnerships, neighborhood revitalization, and retirement security.
“Investment is the heart of the state’s economy and it’s time to get the heart pumping again,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney didn’t tap dance around the tax issue when pressed by reporters about the increased costs that could come with increased spending.
“There’s no free roads,” he said in a direct reference to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. That fund pays for road, bridge and rail improvements across the state, but it is set to run out of money for new projects by June 30 unless its primary source of revenue, the state’s gas tax, is increased or some new source of cash is identified.
Christie has yet to say what his plan is for extending the fund, which right now devotes roughly $1.6 billion annually to transportation projects and also leverages matching federal dollars. He’s also signed an anti-tax pledge as a presidential candidate.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) made the case that New Jersey, given its many roads, ports, international airport and extensive rail network, should be spending as much as $2 billion annually on transportation projects. Background information provided by the Senate Majority Office cited studies that show that each $1 spent on transportation-infrastructure improvements produces $3.50 in direct and indirect economic growth.
“It’s obviously one of the best ways to spur economic growth and make New Jersey competitive in a global economy,” said Weinberg, who will be leading the effort to come up with a new plan for infrastructure funding.
A similar case was made for more government investment in preschool education by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). Each dollar spent on preschool leads to $7 in increased earnings, decreased future education costs, and savings from reductions in crime.
“We cannot afford to not make this investment,” said Ruiz, the chair of the Senate’s Education Committee. “If we make the investment early on, the return on that will be great.”
Sweeney said Democrats will hold roundtable meetings over the next several weeks with groups ranging from policy experts to everyday citizens before crafting their final plans. The first event is scheduled for today at an elementary school in Freehold.
“At the end, we’ll present our solutions to the Legislature, to my Assembly colleagues and to the governor,” he said.
Sweeney is expected to run for governor in 2017 with Christie’s second term coming to an end.
Both the Senate and Assembly are controlled by Democrats, so getting a final package of bills through the Legislature seems likely. Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) said in a statement yesterday that the ideas being advanced by the senators sound similar to legislation already moving through the Assembly as part of an “agenda to protect New Jersey’s middle class.”
“We look forward to continued input and cooperation from the Senate,” Prieto said.
But if lawmakers ultimately send Christie legislation that would rely on increased taxes to boost investment and spending, it’s likely to be rejected by the governor. Christie has opposed such an approach since taking office in early 2010, and he’s now in the thick of the presidential primary election.
Christie, in a statement released by his office in response to the Senate Democrats’ announcement yesterday, sent an early warning to Democrats.
“Our families and business owners have been overtaxed for years, and it’s time to stop chasing residents and job creators out of the state with constant threats of new tax hikes and onerous regulations,” the statement said.
A statement issued by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) also hit the tax issue, questioning whether the Senate Democrats’ call for more investment will ultimately mean higher taxes. Republicans, he said, have been pushing a package of bills aimed at growing the state economy, but their legislation won’t cost any taxpayer dollars.
“I hope that their headline, ‘New Jersey: Investing In You,’ doesn’t translate to Democrats taking more money from hardworking taxpayers and middle-class families,” Kean Jr. said.
With Christie spending most of his time out-of-state seeking the presidency, Sweeney said, it’s time for Democrats to take on the leadership role in New Jersey.
“The problem is, he’s not here,” Sweeney said. “If we don’t try, you get nothing, and we’re going to try as best as we can.”