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Democratic Statehouse Games Are Dangerous

By Steve Adubato, Ph.D

One wonders when the silly games and finger pointing will end down at the Statehouse. The latest episode involves transportation funding for much-needed improvement projects that were put on hold by the Christie Administration and then just as quickly were put back in play when the legislature decided to act after months of doing nothing.

Senator Paul Sarlo (D-Wood Ridge) accused the Christie Administration of shutting down the transportation projects and for political reasons. Sarlo told Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson at a recent hearing, "There is still $50 million available…If there's $50 million available, there's no need to have a shutdown, right?" To which Simpson responds; "Obviously you've never run a government agency." Sarlo's reaction; "I'm the mayor of a town. You just made it personal." Simpson's response; "We have a salary obligation…We didn't want to lay anyone off."

Who is kidding whom? This is ALL political. It's also very silly and dangerous. We are talking about crumbling roads and bridges that are in great need of repair. A Department of Transportation study last year said that out of New Jersey's nearly 6,500 bridges, approximately one third of them were in really bad shape. The technical terms used by the NJDOT were "functionally obsolete" or "structurally deficient."

Senator Sarlo says there was no reason for Governor Chris Christie to stop any transportation projects. The Administration's response was that the legislature needed to get their act together and approve bond financing to keep the Transportation Trust Fund in tact through the spring of 2011. So of course the legislature responds after Christie stopped all transportation projects by approving the sale of $1.25 billion in bonds. Further they approved the refinancing of up to $500 million in existing debt for transportation projects that need to be completed by mid-2011. (I would never play a game of "chicken" with Chris Christie.)

So who really wins in the blame game? It's like the Race to the Top. I'm not saying Chris Christie has been right in everything he's done, but when you make lots of decisions about things that are important, mistakes are going to be made. Of course the legislature, with no executive responsibility or authority, spends more time trying to poke shots at Chris Christie than they do to contributing in any meaningful way to a solution. They are more interested in holding hearings and issuing subpoenas to find out what really happened in the Race to the Top than they are in engaging in any meaningful reform of our public education system. Whether it is education or transportation, it is the same destructive and dangerous pattern going on in the Statehouse.

Listen, I was a former state legislator in the mid-1980s. I was a Democrat and the Governor was Republican Tom Kean. I remember that when Tom Kean proposed the creation of the Transportation Trust Fund in 1984 as a stable source of funding for transportation projects, virtually everyone in the Statehouse thought it was a great idea in private. Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature and I was part of that majority. I will never forget being in the Democratic legislative caucus where party leaders made it clear that Governor Kean was 100% right in creating the Transportation Trust Fund, but said we shouldn't vote for it because "he would get all the credit."

I sat there silently as numerous Democratic leaders got up and hailed the Transportation Trust Fund plan in the Caucus but then said we had to stick together and vote against it. In the end, after telling legislative leaders that I would be "with them", I voted for the creation of the Transportation Trust Fund. In my mind and my heart, I believed it was the right thing to do for the State of New Jersey, but many Democratic leaders accused me of being "disloyal to the party."

As it turned out, virtually all of those same Democrats voted for the Transportation Trust Fund once they saw it was going to pass anyhow. Think about that. It wasn't a matter of principle, ideology or integrity. It was a question of pure partisan politics—an obsession of who gets the credit and who we can blame as opposed to what's right for the state.

Don't get me wrong, partisan politics has its place, but not when the stakes are so high. I only hope that the Democrats in the legislature remember that. It is fine to be the "loyal opposition" and I respect legitimate differences in policy and ideology, but Chris Christie was right to shut down those transportation projects until the funding was in place. Where I disagree with the governor as well as the Democratic legislature is that the only long-term solution to financing transportation projects in New Jersey is a modest increase in the gas tax. But that will never happen, because that would be the right thing to do and not the short term election-obsessed political thing to do.

I just wonder sometimes when the games—particularly those played by the Democratic Majority—are going to end down at the Statehouse and the adults finally take over.

CBS 2 Political Blogger Steve Adubato

 Steve Adubato, Ph.D. regularly contributes to CBS 2 News Sunday Morning. Dr. Adubato is an Emmy Award-winning television anchor and syndicated columnist, and is author of the books "Make the Connection" and the upcoming "What Were They Thinking? Crisis Communication: The Good, the Bad and the Totally Clueless."

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