TRENTON. — TRENTON--Most New Jersey politicians seem intent on putting intergalactic distance between themselves and James Florio, the governor who pushed a $2.8 billion tax package through the legislature last year.
The tax package was passed for all sorts of ''good'' reasons, from covering a recession-bred deficit to middle-class property-tax relief to pumping huge sums into disastrously underfunded inner-city schools. But it boomeranged so viciously that Governor Florio, 14 months into his term, has 18-to-20 percent approval ratings, among the lowest in the history of polling. His name is close to a curse word on the lips of thousands of Jerseyans.
His policies generated such fury that ''Hands Across New Jersey,'' a kind of blue-collar, middle-class ''Mad-as-Hell'' coalition, sprang into being. It wants to undo the governor's tax hikes, reverse his subsidies to the inner cities, and rout his legislative allies this fall.
Aghast, governors across the country are studying the Florio model for lessons on how not to play the fiscal game. And Jersey legislators, especially Mr. Florio's fellow Democrats, are scurrying to undo parts of their 1990 tax-and-spending program in hopes of averting the anti-tax whirlwind that nearly cost Bill Bradley his Senate seat last November. Legislation backed by Democratic leaders would divert, for statewide property-tax relief, $390 million or more of the $1.1 billion they'd voted, at Governor Florio's insistence, for poor inner-city school districts.
There's double tragedy in all of this -- tragedy for a governor pilloried for doing what he thought right, tragedy for all states if the Jersey lesson gets read incorrectly.
New Jersey, under Republican and Democratic governors alike, has allowed its great Revolutionary-era cities -- Newark, Trenton, Camden and others -- to sink into alarming ruin. While the state's suburbs prospered, inner-city kids (mostly black) were dealt one of the worst educational hands in America.
Governor Florio knew it and believed passionately it was time to start redistributing the wealth, and educational advantage. A man from a humble working-class family, he abhorred the unfairness. But Mr. Florio's problem was more than being an unabashed liberal in conservative times. It was brittle personality -- a man so convinced that right and justice were his seatmates that he drove his administration into a political brick wall.
Recession made things tougher for Mr. Florio, but his haste to raise taxes, ''fix'' everything in one fell swoop, did raise questions about his judgment. He acted even before the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its long-expected ruling that the state's disgraceful per-pupil spending differentials -- $4,184 in Camden contrasted to $8,344 in Princeton -- had to be eradicated.
Then the governor tried to appease middle-class taxpayers with property-tax credits financed through a soak-the-rich doubling of higher income-tax brackets.
Too much, too soon, too little explained to the public -- that was the formula. It was compounded by Mr. Florio's insistence on giving large amounts of money to the poorest schools without using any of it to leverage long-overdue reform in poorly run, in some cases corrupt, inner-city school systems. A golden opportunity was lost to dismantle rigid and meddlesome school administrations, to purge indifferent school bureaucrats, to entrust authority in school principals and their teacher corps.
Governor Florio is talking now of demanding accountability and reform as a price for new school subsidies. But in the absence of a stiff state law setting terms for aid, few people believe the school bureaucrats will have the backbone to follow through.
The governor's image today is so negative, the state's politics so polarized, that his fellow Democrats could well lose the legislature this fall. But in the midst of the political wreckage, it's a mistake to ignore what has happened -- with full credit to this governor.
A momentous sea shift, a basic change in how state monies flow, suburb to city, white to black, from New Jersey's most affluent to its poorest, has been effected. Frightened legislators may undo a little of it in property-tax relief. But with the courts behind it, the basic reform is almost sure to stick.
New Jersey will never again be quite the smug, unjust, suburb-over-city, economically discriminatory state Jim Florio inherited. Even in total political failure, probably jolted out of office if he tries for another term in 1993, Mr. Florio may go down in history as the state's most important governor of the late-20th century.
There's instructive contrast in neighboring New York, where master politician Mario Cuomo never quite seems to cash in on his popularity for far-reaching change. Elizabeth Kolbert notes in the New York Times Magazine how Mr. Cuomo routinely calls for school-finance reform, overhauling election law, public financing of elections -- but never goes to the mat to get them passed.
Maybe winning isn't everything. Maybe an occasional governor who is content to be a one-termer, trading in his popularity to achieve basic change, serves his state better than the political survivors.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.