By Rachel Stengel
The first African American woman to lead a legislature in New Jersey, Assemblywoman Sheila Y. Oliver, spoke Monday night to a crowd of 50 in the Mercer Room about the overall state of politics in New Jersey.
Oliver’s appearance at Rider, sponsored by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, corresponded well with Black History Month according to Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute.
“It was fortuitous that we happen to have a very high-ranking African American woman, but she’s certainly not the only one; she just happens to be Speaker,” Dworkin said. “She’s the first [Speaker] in history to be an African American woman in charge of either house of the New Jersey Legislature. She’s only the second African American woman in the entire country to ever lead a house of the Legislature. She is a real groundbreaker, which fits in with what the Rebovich Institute is because we are doing some very impressive things here that you don’t see anywhere else in the state.”
Oliver said Gov. Chris Christie’s recently proposed 10 percent income tax, cut over a three-year period, would result in a loss of treasury funds that could be allocated to other issues in New Jersey.
“Every time we pass a piece of legislation providing a tax credit, remember projecting over time into the future that’s less and less money that is coming into our state treasury,” Oliver said. “We can’t provide financial aid to students, capital improvement funds for universities, helping hospitals, especially safety net hospitals in the state where there are large numbers of uninsured people. So for every action there’s a reaction and we somehow have to find the sweet spot.”
While the tax cut would put more money initially in college students’ pockets to pay off their debts, it would also complicate financial aid. According to Oliver, in the three-year period, $540 million would be removed from the state treasury if the 10 percent income tax proposal were to be instituted.
“Consider if we do [a 10 percent income tax cut for everyone],” Oliver said. “If you think students had difficulty getting financial aid and scholarship assistance that was supported through the state, the less money that we are able to help support institutions like Rider and others, that would be further exasperated as a problem. Everyone wants more money in their pockets, but understand when you look at the total financial structure of our state in order to do that.”
The only way citizens can realistically see the changes they desire is to vote, according to Oliver.
“We don’t have enough people who come out to vote in their communities and we need to do something about that,” Oliver said. “You can look at one end of the state to another whenever we have a school board election, a municipal election, a mayoral election, a freeholder election, often you see less than 25 percent of the registered voters coming out to vote. We need to change that.”
Partisan divide does exist in New Jersey, but it is not a strong divide, Oliver said.
“New Jersey has more registered Independents than either Republicans or Democrats. I think that New Jerseyans make their political decisions based on issues that emerge. And depending upon what that issue is will be a determining factor in terms of what partisan side of the aisle people will choose.”
Oliver said politicians should seek compromise in order to progress as a state.
“If we cling to strong partisan positions on each and every issue in our state House, we will not get anything accomplished for the people in the state of New Jersey.”