Maybe this is true everywhere, but in New Jersey people seem to have a longer memory of what they don’t like than what they like.
Since former governors Jim Florio and Christine Todd Whitman were selected for awards by Stockton University’s Hughes Center recently, people haven’t been shy about what they consider their failures in office. Invariably people conclude either that they aren’t worthy of the center’s Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award or that worthier recipients could be found easily.
Florio, a rare governor from South Jersey (Camden County), is still pilloried for his $2.8 billion tax increase — raising the top income tax rate from 3.5% to 7% and the sales tax from 6% to 7%. The money was intended to balance the budget, increase aid to public schools and expand property tax relief programs. Three years later it cost him his re-election, the first incumbent governor to lose since the state constitution was adopted in 1947.
Whitman defeated him, becoming the state’s first woman governor. She borrowed $2.8 billion to refinance the state pension plan’s $4.2 billion of debt to eliminate its unfunded liabilities and save on interest payments — but she used the fund’s investment gains to reduce pension payments and balance the state budget. She’s been blamed for a big share of the state’s pension and debt problems ever since (while her supporters have argued the financial problems are mainly due to what others did after she left office).
These actions overshadow the many accomplishments of these elected leaders.
While he was a congressman for eight terms, Florio authored what is known as the Superfund law to clean up the nation’s most polluted sites. He also co-sponsored and helped secure passage of an amendment by Reps. William J. Hughes and Edwin Forsythe to the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 that created the Pinelands National Reserve.
From 2002 to 2005, Florio served as chair of the state Pinelands Commission. And as governor he successfully pushed to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons in the state.
Whitman appointed the first women to many key positions, including attorney general, governor’s chief of staff and chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
She cut the income tax 30%, got rid of two state departments and consolidated a couple of others, and helped create the Garden State Preservation Trust to preserve open space, farmland and historic sites.
She eventually left the governor’s office to become administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Many New Jersey officials, maybe all, deserve some blame for a state that has the highest taxes in the country while struggling under one of its biggest debt and pension burdens — and surely that includes Florio and Whitman.
But if someone is going to honor New Jersey public officials, their selection seems uncontroversial and in character with politics and governance in the state. People looking for more than that should look beyond awards.