January 14, 2009

Corzine's message has few new ideas

Courier-Post Staff

Summarizing his first three years in office but offering few new proposals for the 2009 election season, Gov. Jon S. Corzine said in his State of the State address on Tuesday that he won't duck the recession-induced struggles ahead.

"I've never run from a challenge, and I'm not running from this one," Corzine said, nearing the end of his 45-minute speech before a joint session of the Legislature.

"Let me say this to the people of New Jersey: I may not always say what's popular, but you can be sure that what I say comes from the heart," said the governor, whose job-approval ratings are upside-down in public-opinion polls.

He said the national unemployment rate, now 7.1 percent, could rise to 10 percent in 2009. He reviewed steps the state has taken in response, such as business-tax reform, job credits and added spending for safety-net and foreclosure programs.

Going forward, he said the state will commit $4.7 billion to infrastructure projects.

Corzine also called for a moratorium on a new fee paid by real-estate developers. Suspending the 2.5 percent levy on commercial development would ease the tax burden on developers but slow the revenue stream for affordable-housing projects, supported in part by the development fee.

Gloucester County Freeholder-Director Stephen M. Sweeney applauded the idea.

"It's a bad time to be hitting developers with additional fees when the economy is as bad as it is," said Sweeney, who doubles as a Democratic state senator.

Corzine warned that the recession will probably last beyond 2009. "New Jersey is faring better than other states by most standards," he said. "But when one worker loses his job, when one family loses its home, when one child goes without health care, our work is incomplete."

In March, Corzine said, he will propose the fiscal 2010 budget, which carries a projected $5 billion structural deficit. He said he "will undoubtedly propose additional, painful cuts."

"I don't look forward to it," Corzine told lawmakers. "I know you don't."

Corzine also said he will instruct the state Department of Community Affairs "to firmly enforce" a 4 percent cap on municipal property-tax increases, saying 80 percent of the state's municipalities so far exceeded it last year.

In addition, the governor pushed for his legislative proposal that would allow towns to defer half their annual payment to the government-worker pension fund. The measure would save the towns $534 million this year but failed to win passage in the Senate in December.

Gloucester Township Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton said she understands the deferral concept. But it doesn't amount to true tax relief, she said.

"It's just going to push it off to another year," Rau-Hatton said.

Likewise, in Cherry Hill, mayoral spokesman Dan Keashen said the deferral would "not remove the burden or expense on municipalities."

"In fact, it will exacerbate that burden," said Keashen, who speaks for Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt.

Corzine also urged the Legislature to take action on ethics and campaign-finance reforms he outlined in September.

Corzine touched on the environment, as well, suggesting that voters support a November referendum item to fund open-space preservation.

Camden County Freeholder-Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said he encourages such efforts, too.

"It's very important, in our densely populated state, that we preserve green areas, areas of recreation and open space for future generations," Cappelli said. "By doing so, not only are we being wise from an environmental perspective, but we're also creating (real-estate) value in the state."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Adam Smeltz at (856) 486-2919 or asmeltz@gannett.com


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