Rutgers Logo Rutgers University
Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 04/11/05        NJBiz online

Our Fiscal Management Rates a B-

by Ingrid Reed

Report cards hold a very special place in people's memories of school. They were taken seriously. Most people have saved at least one among their childhood souvenirs.

Since we apparently believe in the value of report cards, it is curious that so little attention was paid to the one New Jersey received in February from Governing magazine. The overall grade was “B-,” not great, but not bad either. Grades for four specific management topics give a better sense of where we stand.

  •  Money, or Muddling through Tough Times:  C+
  •  People, or Planning for the Future:  B
  •  Infrastructure, or Taking Care of Assets:  B-
  •  Information, or Making Good Use of Data:  C

So why do these grades matter? Why should anyone pay attention? For starters, the Government Performance Project (GPP) on which the report card is based is a serious matter. Funded by the Pew Foundation and carried out by a respected team of academics and journalists, the assessments were made after information from extensive surveys and interviews had been gathered. Anyone can get the details at for New Jersey and the rest of the country. It is recommended reading for any elected official or candidate.

GPP says it is not the grades themselves that matter but the lessons gained from each state’s successes and failures. Despite New Jersey’s history of budget gimmicks, the state is cited for performing well on some fiscal management tasks such as forecasting revenue and expenditures, exercising financial controls and contracting and purchasing.

But if New Jersey is going to correct its budget imbalance, it will have to rein in borrowing and shift from short- to long-term thinking. Virginia, which rates an “A” in Money, and like New Jersey has a gubernatorial election this year, is a leader in six-year budgetary forecasts. But the report says New Jersey has no statewide strategic plan and lacks comprehensive planning at the agency level. And while “the budget includes some performance and cost information,” the GPP says “the use of such data is close to nonexistent for budget decisions.”

If the report card is right, improving how New Jersey manages money will take more than simply identifying waste, calling for spending cuts and hunting up new sources of revenue. When Acting Governor Richard Codey reverts back to his role as Senate President, can he work with a new governor to institute a multi-year budget using modern performance information?

The GPP shows that New Jersey has good management capacity. Maintenance and capital planning for infrastructure are also strong. As the report card points out, the Department of Transportation and some other departments have comprehensive but underfunded infrastructure programs. Meanwhile, electronic government is giving citizens access to information and services, although the report card notes that it still isn’t easy for people to lodge complaints about poor government services.

The GPP has graded New Jersey and given it suggestions for improvement. Now it’s up to our leaders to help us shape up and do better. Isn’t that the point of report cards?