Opinion: Restoring Public Confidence in Trenton

Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff | November 23, 2016 | Opinion
The best way to restore residents’ confidence is for Trenton to demonstrate that it can function effectively and do at least a few of the things that need doing

Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff
The returns are in. In the wake of one of history’s most acrimonious campaigns, the public’s confidence in the political process and public institutions at every level of government is at or near an all-time low. And no wonder. Thanks to a polarized political culture in New Jersey and elsewhere that feeds on simplistic absolutes while disparaging compromise, our politicians and government seem unable or unwilling to tackle even the smallest problems. Our system has entered a vortex of dysfunction.

What to do? Call me hopelessly naïve, but it seems to me that the obvious antidote to “dysfunction” is “function.” What better way to begin restoring New Jerseyans’ confidence in their state government than for Trenton to demonstrate that it can in fact function effectively and do at least a few of the things that need doing?

Demonstrating functionality will require a willingness to accept compromise, take political risks, and even empathize with your opponent. Since that won’t come easily or naturally to some in Trenton, it makes sense to start rebuilding confidence in the politics of compromise by resolving a handful of issues that are ripe for quick resolution, assuming a small measure of bipartisan good faith. Here’s a short list of potential “confidence builders”:

  • Public employee sick-leave payouts. Everyone agrees that the current law’s failure to place any limits on local government cash payouts for unused sick leave is financially unsustainable and an affront to taxpayers. Gov. Chris Christie has insisted on eliminating such payments and vetoed a bill to cap payments at $15,000 in 2014. The Assembly countered with a proposed cap of $7,500. Regardless of the merits — and I believe the governor has the high ground — the continuing standoff is a monument to stubborn, dysfunctional partisanship. Surely both sides could claim “victory” with a cap of, say, $5,000?
  • Port Authority reform. Reform is long overdue. Three years after the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, a continuing impasse over Port Authority governance reform is contributing to a sense of institutional drift and aggravating interstate rivalries. As I wrote some months ago, there is no good reason for the Legislature not to concur with legislation already passed in New York and supported by both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Christie. Isn’t 98 percent of a loaf better than no loaf at all?
  • Smoking at public beaches and parks. Christie conditionally vetoed legislation that would ban smoking at all public beaches and parks in New Jersey, saying that although he supports a ban covering state-owned beaches and parks, he believes local governments should continue to exercise discretion over whether to ban smoking in local parks or beaches. As it turns out, many local governments have already adopted laws or ordinances against smoking. The Democrats should quietly acquiesce to the governor’s proposed changes and wait until they regain control of the State House to see if their proposed preemption of traditional local government authority still seems like such a good idea. Meanwhile they will have done some good for public health.
  • Sandy foreclosure relief. In late 2015, the Legislature advanced legislation that would give Sandy-impacted homeowners who have qualified for, but have not yet received, state grants to elevate or repair their homes an automatic delay in foreclosure proceedings until 2019 and a suspension of mortgage payment obligations for up to three years. Christie’s conditional veto would have referred requests for foreclosure and mortgage relief to the state courts. The Legislature did not concur, creating a stalemate that has likely left some homeowners with meritorious claims in the lurch. Surely there is room for compromise. For example, why not empower the Department of Community Affairs to grant temporary relief for up to six months, subject to a “fast-track” judicial review?
  • Equal pay for women. Democrats have repeatedly advanced legislation to make it easier to bring equal-pay discrimination claims. Although Christie has expressed support for equal-pay protections, his conditional vetoes have argued that New Jersey law should not be more aggressive and broader in scope than a 2009 federal law that Democrats have cited as a model. He has a point. Indeed, the Democrats’ intransigence suggests they would rather “keep the issue” and accuse Christie of a lack of empathy than accept substantive, but less headline-grabbing, progress on an important issue. Ladies and gentlemen: please stop the posturing and move forward.
  • Clean car commission/Clean vehicle task force. The Legislature has repeatedly attempted to combine the creation of a planning task force on zero-emission (electric) cars with a proposal, opposed by the governor, that would curtail the Commissioner of Environmental Protection’s discretion to opt out of California’s zero-emission vehicle standards, first incorporated into New Jersey law in 2003. Although the Assembly has backed off the standards provision, the Senate has not. The Senate should agree to defer the important issue of compliance with California’s standards to 2018 and beyond. Meanwhile, New Jersey needs catch up in planning for the transition to alternative-fuel vehicles.
  • Executive State House rehabilitation. The New Jersey State House — the nation’s second-oldest state capitol in continuous use — is a civic treasure that ought to reflect and inspire pride in New Jersey and its public institutions. Unfortunately, after about 100 years of neglect, the executive portion of the State House is dangerously dilapidated and in urgent need of repair. Portions of the building are structurally unsound; the façade is crumbling; many window frames have rotted; heating and ventilation systems are antiquated and inefficient; the attic and roof are a firetrap; the makeshift interiors are ramshackle and cannot accommodate modern office technologies; and even the gold leaf on the capitol dome needs repair. Stabilization, repair, and modernization will be very expensive — $200 million or more — and will take years. Trenton’s leaders understand that something must be done but have been reluctant to move forward for fear that the press and public will criticize the expenditure as self-interested and excessive in the face of the State’s many other urgent needs. They are mistaken. Today’s temporary custodians of the halls of power have an obligation to preserve and protect our common civic heritage for future generations. If they hold hands and jump off the political cliff together, I am confident that they will all land safely.