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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 02/14/05        NJBiz online

We Want Steak but Get the Sizzle

by Ingrid Reed

When I recently watched President Bush give his State of the Union address, I remembered that I had been outside the range of New Jersey television when Acting Governor Codey gave his first—and probably only—State of the State address earlier in the month.

While I immediately got the highlights of the Codey speech and its rave reviews online, I missed getting the full picture of him and his message, so I decided to find the text. I have to admit that “State of” speeches, as required in our constitutions at the federal or state level, have not satisfied my expectation of what our founding fathers wanted them to be: factual annual reports that addressed future needs and resources. Instead, what we usually get is selected highlights of accomplishments and a long list of proposed initiatives that are unfortunately short on implementation strategies.

Codey's speech was easy to find on the front page of the governor’s Website, His candor came across right after the expressions of appreciation to our troops, his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, his family and “the citizens of our great state.” He acknowledged that “both sides of the political establishment have tried your a time of political upheaval...our faith in government has been shaken.” I imagined a chorus of amens.

So what did he propose to do about this? Rather than reading through the whole speech, I scrolled to the last page to see what inspirational remedy the acting governor offered. It was summed up in the down-to-earth language that I think New Jersey voters have come to expect from him: “I said that I want to be realistic about what we can accomplish in the year ahead. The public deserves better than false promises and unrealistic expectations.” Again the imagined chorus of amens.

What followed was a list of 14 initiatives including a ban on pay to play; increased access to medical care and prescription drugs; and action on the Property Tax Convention. Items 13 and 14 on the list had a “by the way” quality: “a four billion dollar budget deficit must be closed and...the Transportation Trust Fund must be addressed.” Not quite false promises, but certainly not very realistic for New Jersey in 2005.

Maybe there were details I had missed in the main part of the speech. I scrolled back to near the beginning looking for details. Did the governor tell us how difficult and how complicated it is to implement change? Did he help citizens understand who needed to do what and when?

About six pages into the speech, Codey gave a tough assessment of what it would take to protect the safety of school children, a totally new priority for his administration. With exquisite detail that probably drove the speech writers crazy, he told us that educators, bus drivers and nurses know about security, that they would be trained by experts, that school construction practices should change, that standards would be published, inspections would take place and who would be held responsible. No mention, however, of cost or timetable.

Of course, it is too much to ask that each new measure mentioned in a State of the State speech get similar treatment. But if this is the time to “start the process of restoring the public’s trust in the institutions of government,” as Codey says he wants to do, citizens should be able to find out what it takes to make good on a promise. If an implementation strategy is available, it can be posted with the speech on the Web. Embedded in the online speech was the option of voting “yes” or “no” on 10 key proposals and of clicking for information designed to persuade rather than explain. Maybe the choices should include “maybe” and “tell me more.”

Trust in government comes from our elected officials being clear about what it takes to meet the goals they set and the proposals they make, and trusting the people to understand. I suspect that’s what our founding fathers thought was the purpose of an address about the State of the State—and the Union.