Politics in New Jersey

Open Borrowing got me back to checking out books from the Morris County Library for the first time since my wallet was stolen at the Montclair YMCA about twenty years ago and the card I had been using, possibly illegally, for years without renewing was lost forever. Excerpts from that first checkout which, based on my experience, remain relevant:

However, parties as organizations remained strong, controlling the nominating process and conditioning the behavior of public officials. (page 17)

New Jersey until late in the 1960s retained its reputation for having the lowest per capita state taxes in the nation and its ranking near the bottom of the states in per capita expenditures for basic state services. Not until 1966 was a broad-based tax enacted – a sales tax – and as late as 1973 the state was contributing only 30 percent of the cost of maintaining the public schools. In 1976, after a decade of controversy and under intense judicial pressure to reform the basis of school finance, the legislature reluctantly enacted a modest income tax. Associated with this measure was a constitutional amendment dedicating all receipts from the income tax to the purpose of reducing local property taxes. At the same time, “caps” were placed on future increases in state and local expenditures in a determined effort to halt the mounting costs of government. (pages 21-2)

The new rules of the game should make it more likely that the governor and the legislature will be of the same party, but it remains to be seen whether parties will have sufficient coherence and discipline to provide responsible government. (page 26)

On most issues New Jerseyans lack considerable information about the politics of the Garden State; their votes therefore cannot be explained as knowing choices for particular policies. (page 29)

New Jersey political parties have not followed the example. For the most part, they have been “job-oriented,” rather than “issue-oriented,” concerned with the distribution of offices and the allocation of rewards, rather than achievement of a party platform.  (page 30)

Although the county tends to have low public visibility – indeed, it has been called a “phantom government” by some – most studies of parties recognize the county as the critical geopolitical unit, noting “that if effective party organization and leadership were found anywhere in the American party system, it would be at the county rather than at the state level and most certainly, not at the national level.” In New Jersey then, in each party, there are actually twenty-one separate and more or less autonomous county party units. The heads of these organizations, the county chairpersons, are the traditional “bosses” that one associates with party politics. This designation is well placed. Strictly speaking, the chairpersons run their own organizations and are not accountable to anyone outside the county. (page 88)

A lack of competition, however, works in different ways. Usually, given the availability of organization resources, one-party control leads to autocratic rule by the majority party elite as in Hudson, Camden and Mercer. In other counties, however, such as Middlesex and Morris, the absence of a competitive threat allows parties the “luxury” of factionalization. With only a minimal threat from the minority, the need to “pull together” is often secondary to the particular interests of the various factions. (page 91)

The role of the freeholder board has been reduced, and the bulk of the powers and patronage is placed in the hands of a single elected official – the county executive. The resources once available to the dominant party faction have now been removed from its hands and given to public officials with their own power base. As one Democratic leader in Essex commented, “Listen, we don’t care who gets elected to the county chair now. The job doesn’tmean much anymore because [the county executive] controls all the patronage.” (page 92)

Patronage, or appointive public office, is the most common resource noted in analyses of political parties. For dominant or competitive parties, patronage is still the name of the game in New Jersey politics. While the “no show” job or overt purchase of offices are rare, the notion that party workers, whatever their status, no longer seek material rewards for their services seems largely a myth.  (page 104)

Paid jobs are only one kind of individual and tangible incentive that parties provide. More important may be the opportunities which they offer for economic gain in the private sector. The party can promote the fortunes of lawyers who seek probate cases, of contractors eager to build public structures, of merchandisers who want to sell to government, of craftsmen who want to work on government projects, or of researchers who want a state grant. While these are not patronage positions in the narrow sense, they are the same kind of material resources that have traditionally sustained party organizations. (page 104)

we have seen that parties as organizations are not interested in most policy questions. (page 105)

In 1973, the state supreme court declared that the existing heavy reliance on the local property tax was unconstitutional for purposes of educational spending. This decision precipitated the enactment of the state income tax, shifting considerable  revenue from the local to the state level.  (page 106)

In fact, one of the largest and most prestigious groups, the Medical Society of New Jersey (which represents about 70 percent of the roughly 13,000 doctors in the state), has not attempted to exert much influence on the legislature or other agencies. Perhaps this is due to its record of success years ago or to the fact that most physicians in New Jersey have such lucrative practices that they have little need to engage in extensive lobbying activity. (page 115)

It was not, in fact, until after the great income-versus-sales tax battle of 1966 that a group known as the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association was formed. In that year the State Chamber of Commerce worked strenuously and successfully to help secure the passage of the sales tax, which most merchants strongly opposed. Upset by this experience, a number of establishments, led mainly by some of the larger department store chains, decided to band together to form their own organization, the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association. (page 117)

Another long-established group, which at one time carried considerable weight and prestige in state governmental circles, is the New Jersey Taxpayers Association (NJTA). (page 124)

Is there a lawyer who would like to be a judge? Let him see his home-county sernator, and let that senator see his regional contact on the judiciary, and let that senator see Jerry English, who handles these matters for Governor Byrne. Let it then be clear with the county chairman, assuming the chairman pulls some weight, and lo, it gets done. (pages 162-3)

County organizations, however, have meant less with regard to matters of public policy, mainly because their interest in policy has been limited. Only a few issues at each session – such as legislation affecting election process – have caused county organizations to take note. (page 163)

The more severe restraints on gubernatorial choice, however, are informal and political rather than constitutional and legal. Particularly when he first assumes office, the governor usually has to satisfy some debts to political supporters of the preceding election campaign. Cabinet positions are time-honored rewards for some of those who significantly helped the candidate, whether with personal prestige, party-factional leadership, financial endorsement, or ethnic, racial or religious representation. (page 171)

In fiscal year 1977 the state and local governments in New Jersey raised and spent approximately $10 billion. While this is certainly a substantial amount of money, in comparison to revenues and expenditures in other states it is really quite moderate. In fact, New Jersey has had a national reputation for possessing low state taxes and for providing relatively meager financial support for its public services, and until recently this reputation has been well deserved. (page 230)

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Tough Love on May 14, 2018 at 12:56 am


    Would you extend the last line of that chart to 2016 or 2017?


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