Remember this from George Carlin? Hey, we apologize if anyone is offended, but these are his words not ours.
Maybe George Carlin was right. Maybe we get the politicians we deserve. If they suck, it is a reflection of how we suck. Or maybe, we have stopped listening, learning, and participating in any meaningful way.
Look at what has become known as the "increase in the gas tax." Actually it started out as an economic restructuring plan, but because that took too long to explain, it has morphed into a tax swap: An increase in the tax on petroleum fuel in return for a cut in the sales tax and a cut in the tax on retirement income. But even now, many people just speak of it as the "increase in the gas tax."
Instead of a civil, rational discussion, we've had performance art -- Dadaist theatre featuring NJ 101.5's Bill Spadea replete with his electric blue phallic symbol. A "prop" he calls it, something used to make a point. Indeed.
The point to remember about Bill Spadea is that when the Spadeas decided to locate a new business, they chose Pennsylvania. When they decided to expand, they chose Latin America. Which when you think about it, is kind of the whole argument here.
The level of noise on NJ 101.5 has given rise to everything from death threats to gross displays of selfishness and ignorance. Look, we all understand that New Jersey hasn't raised the price it pays to repair and maintain its roads and bridges since 1988. While everywhere else is paying 40 cents or even 50 cents tax on a gallon of gasoline, New Jersey insists it can make do on only 14 1/2 cents a gallon. Of course, it can't, and so it has borrowed so much to cover up its unwillingness to pay that now it has to raise the tax 23 cents a gallon -- with 10 cents of that going just to pay interest on the debt.
And yet some dreadfully ignorant souls still argue that they "deserve" a discount gas tax because they pay so much in other taxes. That's kind of like going into a restaurant and asking them to charge you 1988 prices because your mortgage and household bills are too high. Just see if that works. The waiter will explain to you that one has nothing to do with the other.
A dog in pain will bite someone trying to help it. If the last few weeks have proven anything, it's that some New Jersey taxpayers are a lot like that dog in pain.
Here's the problem. New Jerseyeans pay too much in taxes -- starting with the highest-in-the-nation property taxes. That's because New Jerseyeans have allowed the unelected state Supreme Court to take charge of the revenue from the income tax -- which is supposed to fund education and provide property tax relief. So instead of the elected Legislature apportioning the income tax money, the unelected Court does it -- and is responsible for the most inequitable funding formula in America. Half the economically disadvantaged children in the state are left out in the cold because they live in rural and suburban communities.
But our problems don't end there. New Jersey is the most over-regulated state in America, making everything in the state -- both private and public sectors -- more expensive. New Jersey also has a tax structure that chases away investment and suppresses job creation. On top of this, New Jersey is a bad choice if you are planning on retiring.
Starting with the premise that New Jersey is one of the worst states for business in America (49 out of 50, according to Forbes) and that this kills job creation and results in the flight of capital and people from the state, Senator Steve Oroho got to work on the problem and created a plan to do something about it. Senator Oroho is a Republican in a Legislature where both chambers are controlled by Democrats, so whatever plan he came up with would have to be a starting point for a compromise with the majority party.
This Oroho guy knows his stuff. Generally in America, the legislators on the committee charged with budgeting and fiscal matters are lawyers, but Oroho is no lawyer. Oroho is a numbers guy -- a certified financial planner and CPA.
Before beginning his career of public service, Steve Oroho was a senior financial officer for S&P 500 companies like W. R. Grace and Young & Rubicam. He's put companies back on a healthy financial track.
Oroho learned the budget process at the grassroots -- as a borough councilman and county freeholder. It has taken decades of experience and thousands of pages of balance sheets to make Senator Oroho what he is today. He's the only member of the Senate Budget Committee with these kind of skills.
Steve Oroho is the kind of guy that you would go to if you screwed up your finances and wanted to find a way to restore your family and your future to economic health. We don't have many of these kinds of professionals in the legislature -- in any legislature -- anywhere in the country. What we have are lawyers.
Look at Congress. 435 members of the House and 100 Senators and just 10 numbers guys in the bunch. Want to know why the country is in so much debt?
So here's this numbers guy, following the numbers, and the numbers are the numbers -- New Jersey is halfway down the path to economic hell (no, this isn't hell, the Weimar Republic was hell, food riots in Venezuela is hell) and along comes this rare-in-politics numbers guy. He comes up with a plan that begins to alter our state's downward trajectory. You see, it's all about keeping capital in New Jersey and attracting more capital. That's under the current economic rules. We could, of course, turn Marxist or something. Those would be different rules. We could build a Berlin-style wall around the state to keep wealthy earners in New Jersey. Those would be different rules too. But given the current set of rules we're working under, this numbers guy Oroho put a plan together.
And just like if you had someone over to your kitchen table to tell your family that you couldn't continue your 2016 lifestyle on a 1988 budget, numbers guy Oroho had to honestly tell the folks here in New Jersey that they've been kicking that can down the road far too long. Three decades. What stays the same price for three decades?
Yes, the gas tax is too low in New Jersey. We've been paying 14 1/2 cents per gallon to fund our roads while states like Pennsylvania need to charge 50 cents a gallon. But we are also one of just two states that have both an Estate Tax and an Inheritance Tax and at least one of those has got to go. Most economists finger the Estate Tax for destroying family businesses and farms and for inhibiting capital retention -- so Oroho's plan got rid of it. New Jersey is a terrible place to retire, one of the worst in the country -- so the numbers told Oroho that to keep seniors and their wealth in state (and closer to their families) you had to cut the state's tax on retirement income. So Oroho's plan eliminated the tax on retirement income for over 90 percent of retirees. There were other tax cuts too, as Oroho followed the numbers, addressing problem after problem, as they presented on the balance sheets.
When you talk "numbers" to most politicians, they think "polls" -- polling numbers. When polls first came out -- back around the time of FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower -- they were used to help those lions lead. You didn't "follow" a poll, you used the poll to test language that enabled you to better explain why you were doing the right thing. That's not the way it works today. Today polls tell politicians what to think and what to say.
Now we all know that tax increases do not test well in polls, while new spending on this great program or that tests very well. And that's why we're in so much debt, because the numbers most politicians follow aren't the numbers a guy like Steve Oroho follows. The numbers Steve Oroho follows tell us to pay our way, keep debt minimal, attract investment, allow business to create jobs --all those things that used to be called "fiscally conservative."
So here you have numbers guy Oroho, following his balance sheet numbers, running head long into politicians following their polling numbers. Add into the mix a brand new talk radio host looking for ratings numbers and the level of discourse quickly goes into the toilet. Oroho is following the balance sheet numbers, the politicians are scared of the polling numbers, and the talk show host is whipping up his rating numbers using feverish misinformation. We're not talking here about honest policy differences, fully thought out and backed up with well-rounded intellectual arguments. What we're talking about are those throw away comments worthy of the surly drunk at the end of the bar.
So here's the question New Jerseyeans are going to have to look into the mirror and ask themselves: Is New Jersey still a place where an honest guy, following the numbers, can propose a plan that addresses the economic and fiscal realities the state faces? Or must politics and emotion dominate every discussion?
Was George Carlin right when he said (and we paraphrase), "Screw hope"?