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published in The Times, Trenton, NJ, 05/13/06

Change is Tough — but Sometimes Necessary

by Ingrid Reed

Gov. Jon Corzine's budget has been out for review for many weeks, and I am still thinking about how I, a political junkie, was yearning to know what he was proposing in his message to the Legislature and the people of New Jersey while I was traveling around Sicily from one Greek ruin to another without an Internet cafe in sight.

On the afternoon when the budget was revealed, I was sitting in the middle of a vast, empty, crumbling amphitheater on the side of a hill in Siracusa, a once majestic city of thousands that ruled the Mediterranean Sea. What happened there? I could only conclude that the rulers and the people of that great city just couldn't figure how to change under new circumstances.

I returned to New Jersey, and like everyone else, I quickly found out that the budget is a tough one, as the governor had taken great effort to explain it would be - calling for both significant cuts and tax increases. ]For all the numbers being discussed and disputed, this budget may actually be about change and not just dollars and cents.

This should come as no surprise. Gov. Richard Codey, the governor we seemed to have trusted, told us that the state is financially challenged and near bankruptcy. He clearly put it in such stark terms because he expected us to change our ways.

The voters, too, knew change was needed. In surveys done before the gubematorial election, most of them told us that they did not trust either candidate to fulfill his promises about tax cuts or rebate increases. They thought taxes would rise even though the candidates denied that possibility.

So, what is the change element that Gov. Corzine has added to the budget challenge?

First, he has set out hi3 priorities. This is not a budget that cuts everything a little bit. He has significantly cut or withheld increases selectively. He has also added to some budget categories.

He has told the citizens what he values: protecting the vulnerable and making the budget fair for people of all incomes. If those are not your priorities, you can present your own, but in effect these are the values that guide this budget. Other states that have righted their budget wrongs have done so by focusing on priorities and not on trying to do everything as before with just a little less.

The second change is that this is not a one-year budget. While it will meet the constitutional requirement of an annual balanced budget after what is likely to be tough negotiations with the Legislature, the projections are already out there for what needs to be done next year and the following year to meet our obligations and reduce debt. Restoring cuts does not appear to be a part of that multi-year picture - changing how we do the
state's business is.

The third change is about recognizing that we can't continue to manage the state with the same rules and practices. This budget pushes us to grapple with modem management, to figure out how to be more efficient and effective and to reconfigure what level of government does what.

Without specific directions, this budget is already pushing people to change. Our state doesn't have a lot of research that tells us what things cost or examples of new ways to do things. We know little about the comparative advantages of different municipal and county practices. There are few guidelines about costs per person or per mile by which to judge programs. Information technology is not uniformly used to collect data or streamline operations. But smart individuals are starting to figure it out, even though government as a whole has a tough time doing so.

Leadership for change has to come from the bottom up and the top down simultaneously. We New Jerseyans have been patient but skeptical about whether we or government officials can change rather than just patch things up and hope for the best. This is a time for the governor and the Legislature to show us otherwise.
Is this the kind of change that leads us away from the fate of Siracusa? I guess we will never know whether tourists someday will be basking in the sun on the collapsed sky boxes of Giant stadium. For now, it is clear that New Jersey can't keep doing what it has been doing for the last couple of decades and thrive.

This column was adaptedfrom one that ran in NJBiz April 24, 2006.