By Shanna O’Mara
As Governor Chris Christie’s term enters its final year, other Garden State politicians look to run for office.
Although former Chairman of the New Jersey Democratic Party Tom Byrne is unsure of his status as a possible gubernatorial candidate, he recognizes serious problems currently facing the state and knows they cannot be fixed with magic.
“A lot of politicians get up and say, ‘Well, we’ll fix the cities if we just bring in more jobs,’” he said during a Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics event on Oct. 17. “They make it sound like you can wave a wand and the jobs will appear. It’s not so easy.”
Creating jobs is just one solution to the economic problem, and Byrne has plans for doing so.
According to Byrne, New Jersey has “half the market share in terms of employment in the pharmaceutical industry than we had two decades ago.” He calls for an appropriate tax policy with balanced tax breaks, investment in biotechnology and increased alliances between industries and the private sector. For example, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School partnered with Saint Barnabas Medical Center. It is also affiliated with the Veteran Affairs New Jersey Health Care System and Hackensack University Medical Center. This working relationship will not only better prepare students for careers in the medical field, but it will also keep and create jobs in the state.
Another flawed field that Byrne views as an opportunity to improve the state’s economy and functionality is law enforcement. He blames a “misallocation of resources” for high urban crimes rates and imbalanced pay among officers.
Byrne openly disagreed with the manner in which police officers are stationed around the state and spoke with “honest transparency” about his qualms with their pay, according to freshman global studies major Jill Montilla.
“I believe that we have too many cops in some of our very safe suburban towns, including my hometown of Princeton, and in Trenton, I don’t think there are enough police,” Byrne said. “When you look at the pay, the pay is generally higher in the suburban areas than it is in the cities, and in the cities, it is a much more dangerous job.”
Not only are city police officers paid less while in uniform, they and many others may now also have to worry about lack of financial support after they retire.
“New Jersey has, if not the largest, certainly one of the largest unfunded liabilities of any pension system in the United States,” Byrne said.
According to Byrne, he and the other members of the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefits Study Commission unanimously concluded that “the last six governors simply didn’t put into the pension system anywhere near the amount that they were supposed to contribute” because of the lack of immediate consequences and rebuttal.
“I’ve had very smart, very responsible experts tell me that they think it’s already too late to save the public employees’ and the teachers’ pension funds,” Byrne said. “I believe we can save it, but I don’t think we can save it with pixie dust. There are difficult decisions that are going to have to be made.”
Byrne offered the option of rationalizing public employees’ healthcare plans, giving them Obamacare Gold or equivalent coverage then redistributing the over $1 billion saved back into unfunded liability in the pension plan.
He also suggested reforming healthcare for state employees.
“If you implemented the same healthcare reforms at the local level, for county and local employees, and there were no other variables, you would save $2.5 billion in healthcare costs,” Byrne said.
He added that New Jersey municipalities collect approximately $28 billion each year in property taxes, the highest of any state in the country. The money saved through healthcare reform could cut property taxes by eight to nine percent, according to Byrne, and prevent people from moving out of state for financial reasons.
“Byrne believes the position of governor to be one of manager and not of micro-manager,” Montilla said. “He was realistic about the capabilities of the governor,” recognizing that his plan may not appeal to each individual employee but would benefit the state and its residents overall.
He stressed the importance of making the most of the state’s budget and allocating funds in such a way that ensures political, financial and social success in the future.
“We have to make maximum use of the resources that we have,” he said. “Our cities aren’t going to be great until the schools in the cities are great.”
Quality education will expose youth to the successes and failures of government and spark an interest to get involved in the community, state or even national conversation.
“Politics does matter,” Byrne said. “Good government does matter. Having young people who care about good public policy and being involved civically absolutely does matter, so keep the flame burning bright.”