Rhetoric Meets Reality in the Turnpike State

GEORGE F. WILL

March 19, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

Trenton, New Jersey. -- It has been said that Britain is an island, France is a nation, Germany is a language and Egypt is a river. In the jaundiced eyes of many Americans, New Jersey is a river of concrete, a turnpike. It is a state to be gotten through to get somewhere else. But for students of contemporary politics and governance, New Jersey is a fascinating lesson in the limits of both.

Both are the business of Donald DiFrancesco, 47. He is one of the people in American politics usually referred to as ''unsung,'' and he would probably prefer to stay that way, considering the anti-political lyrics of the moment. He is a state legislator.

In his 17th year in politics he is president of the state Senate, and thus is the second-highest elected official in the state. The highest, Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat, hardly dares to raise his head above the parapets, such is the antagonism voters feel for him halfway through his term.

Mr. DiFrancesco is an unprepossessing Republican -- ''Mr. Bland Goes to Trenton'' was a New York Times headline -- of average height and average build who says such things as ''a lot of what I say is pretty boring.'' But look who led the storming of the state government last November when Democratic control of both houses of the state legislature was replaced, in a thunderclap, by veto-proof Republican majorities.

New Jersey is America's most densely populated state, so perhaps it is to be expected that the cramping effects of the recession have produced here an unusual amount of aggressive elbow-throwing for social space. The question, as usual, when a fight breaks out is, ''Who started it?'' Governor Florio did. Now Mr. DiFrancesco is winning, which has its own hazards.

In the 1989 gubernatorial campaign Governor Florio ''went negative'' first and worst (although not much worse than his opponent) and won while saying reassuring things about (does any of this sound familiar?) no new taxes. But he inherited a deficit and promptly raised taxes much more than the deficit required. His tax increases had redistributive purposes, particularly for helping poor school districts. Governor Florio in 1990 was about as liberal as, well, Sen. Tom Harkin has been in 1992. Liberalism is still a hard sell.

New Jersey is the second-richest state (second to Connecticut), with a median household income over $40,000. However, two-earner households with incomes two or even three, times $40,000 (and with a mortgage, two cars, two commutes, child care, a housekeeper, etc.) do not feel as though they have anything extra for government to play with. In 1990 and 1991 New Jersey was the angriest state. That is why in 1992 Mr. DiFrancesco and the Republicans have power and a problem.

So agitated were New Jersey voters last autumn concerning Governor Florio's $2.8 billion tax increase -- the largest in state history -- they may not have been listening carefully to what Republicans were not saying. Republicans may have wanted to seem committed to repealing the whole kit and caboodle, but they never promised that.

Immediately after the election, only dogged Republican resistance and a few faint hearts among the Democrats prevented the lame-duck Democratic legislature from repealing the entire $2.8 billion. That would have put the incoming Republicans unceremoniously in the soup. They would have had to slash services or raise other taxes, such as property taxes. Property taxes are already high (New Jersey governments get 42 percent of their revenues from property taxes; the other states average 30 percent) so income and sales taxes can be relatively low.

Republicans dodged the bullet of post-election repeal, but merely by taking power the Republicans have had their own bluff called. All the Republicans specifically promised to roll back is the $600 million sales-tax increase. And as the dust settles and the Republican counter-revolutionaries settle into their jobs, it already is clear that most of what Governor Florio did will not be undone.

A poll by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University reveals that a majority of New Jerseyans oppose repeal of even the sales-tax increase if that would mean significant cuts in services. Voters are saying, as usual, ''Read our lips: Mumble, mumble, mumble.'' So Mr. DiFrancesco is reduced to a familiar promise, saying ''What we are looking to do is cut the waste in government, not essential services.''

The electorate is still seething and when in November 1993, it gets another crack at Governor Florio there may not be enough left of him to pick up with tweezers. Be that as it may, he has, in a sense, won -- most of his tax increases will survive -- and there is in his experience a lesson of broad applicability.

The lesson is that a bold wave of change hardly ever quite recedes. But if you want to be bold, as Governor Florio was, you must be willing to be swept away, as Governor Florio may be, by the subsequent undertow.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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