The Whitman shuffle

October 19, 1994|By Bruce S. Rosen

Roseland, N.J. -- ONE OF CHRISTINE Todd Whitman's first acts as governor of New Jersey nine months ago was to commute the death sentence of Taro, the Akita convicted of biting a 10-year-old girl, on the condition that the dog leave the state forever.

The solution pleased outraged dog lovers, while the governor's aides rejoiced that publicity over the pending execution had been defused.

But though "out of sight, out of mind" is surely expedient, what does it say to the next 10-year-old unlucky enough to cross the dog's path?

The Taro episode is just a footnote today, but it foreshadowed Ms. Whitman's proclivity for "bold initiatives" that do little more than shift problems from one place to another.

One needn't look further than the centerpiece of her administration: a 30-percent income-tax cut that began life as a desperate afterthought in a faltering election campaign.

Not only did this gimmick salvage the election for Ms. Whitman, but also it made her a national figure.

The new darling of moderate Republicans, she has just returned from a GOP-sponsored tour of the heartland meant to set her off from politics as usual.

Gubernatorial candidates from George Pataki in New York to Ellen Sauerbrey in Maryland are calling themselves "Whitman Republicans."

A New York Times article under the headline "Move Over, Rockefeller, G.O.P.'s Got a New Idol" spoke of her winning "philosophy": moderate on social issues like abortion rights, tough on crime, embracing "the traditional Republican insistence lower taxes, smaller government and business-friendly policies."

All this may sound great on the campaign trail in Buffalo or Baltimore. In New Jersey, it looks different.

A year after the election, only the first 5 percent of that 30-percent tax cut has been put into effect. A family of four earning $40,000 is saving about $1 a week. Another 10-percent cut is to take effect in January.

Even Ms. Whitman concedes that much of the impetus is "psychological," designed to improve impressions about New Jersey's economic health.

But, meanwhile, the resulting cuts in state aid to schools and municipalities have forced sharp increases in property taxes. Local politicians of all stripes are scrambling for cover.

Then there was the way Ms. Whitman saved more than $1 billion to balance this year's budget: by changing the way the state determines its payments to employee pension funds. Even the administration's actuarial consultants agree that the change will shift billions in pension costs to future taxpayers.

For the moment, Ms. Whitman's approval rating is very high, in the state as much as outside it. But impressions can be fleeting. A $1.5 billion budget gap looms for 1995.

The Whitman glow may dim as income-tax cuts require further reductions in aid to localities and increases in fees, fares, tuition and property taxes.

Just as she shipped the troublesome Taro to another state, Ms. Whitman's programs are likely to shift big burdens to another generation.

If this sounds familiar, it's because the original Whitman Republican wasn't Nelson Rockefeller.

It was Ronald Reagan.

Bruce S. Rosen, former editor of the New Jersey Law Journal, is a lawyer in private practice. He wrote this for the New York Times.

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