Asbury Park Press Editorial -
Just because a politician such as Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, makes suggestions that are political in nature and, quite possibly, self-serving doesn’t mean the suggestions are wholly without merit. He made two of them last week, and both need to be taken seriously.
First, he proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would require electoral competitiveness to be a major factor in deciding how legislative districts are drawn every 10 years.
Bramnick also proposed creating four joint legislative committees to, in his words, “restore fiscal sanity” to the state by conducting what he called “long-term strategic planning” to address the state’s most vexing problems. These committees could help lower the temperature of heated disagreements between the two parties, and perhaps give shape to possible compromise solutions.
The idea of making the state’s elections more competitive is a sound one, and legislators should have the courage to support it. While the idea has merit, it could change the electoral map to enable the GOP to pick up seats in the Assembly and Senate, and it is hard to imagine the entrenched incumbents would put it on a ballot for the voters to decide.
But they should. And Bramnick, albeit a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2017 looking to grab all the positive press he can get, would be doing a service by keeping this critical issue front and center. Gerrymandered districts keep qualified candidates from even attempting to run for office.
The lack of competitiveness is so rampant that even with Gov. Chris Christie’s landslide victory last year, the GOP failed to make any gains in the Legislature. The Democrats maintained a 24-to-16 advantage in the Senate and a 48-32 edge in the Assembly.
As with most elections in New Jersey at the federal, state and even county level, the outcomes are usually determined well in advance, thanks to factors that tilt heavily in favor of incumbents and one political party or the other.
In the gerrymandered state legislative districts, no incumbent state senators or Assembly representatives have been defeated in at least the last two election cycles, other than one victim of redistricting in 2011. Victory margins of less than 10 percent are rare.
In Ocean County, a Democrat hasn’t won a seat on the freeholder board in more than 20 years; in Monmouth County, Republicans have controlled the board for 24 of the last 25 years.
While Bramnick’s idea is welcome, it is quixotic and ultimately hobbled by a Democratic-controlled Legislature whose members are by and large satisfied with the status quo. To get the question on the ballot for voters to decide, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, would have to agree to put it up for a vote in their respective chambers, and it would have to pass both houses with a supermajority before the voters could weigh in.
That is highly unlikely, given that such a vote could conceivably jeopardize the Democratic majorities.
Bramnick’s other worthy proposal would create four joint legislative committees. They would examine the possibility of phasing out public workers’ pensions in favor of 401(k) accounts; repealing or reducing income and inheritance taxes; evaluating the school funding formula; and promoting the state’s generous corporate incentive programs.
Such bipartisan committees are an absolute necessity given the fiscal mess in this state. The pension system is sorely underfunded, New Jersey residents are overtaxed and the school funding formula remains unfair. Whether the state’s tax breaks for corporations are far too generous is at least a matter for debate.
These issues have dogged the state, led to too many stalemates in Trenton, and continue to cost the taxpayers hard-earned money.
The committees Bramnick proposes would of necessity include members of both parties, who would be charged with working together to come up with recommendations that might have a shot at getting a fair hearing. These four issues are not going to be solved by passing a single piece of legislation for each of the issues.
Bramnick pointed out that Democrats worked with Christie early in his administration to curb property tax growth and trim public workers’ benefits.
Until the George Washington Bridge scandal emerged, lawmakers demonstrated they could work well with those across the aisle. Since then, the bipartisanship has soured.
Bramnick said the committees would encourage lawmakers “to be problem solvers instead of partisans.”
The lack of competitiveness in the state’s elections makes a mockery of what democracy is supposed to be. The state’s long-term financial woes, bad and getting worse, cost New Jerseyans far too much.
Bramnick has suggested a possible solution to the problem of increased electoral competitiveness and at least a possible way forward for the Legislature to address a number of the state’s grave fiscal issues.