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1990 Tax Increase May Not Sink N.J.'s Florio After All

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JERSEY CITY, N.J.--Pulling up outside a reception given by local teachers' unions, the limousine lets out a man who just two or three years ago was the most reviled political figure in New Jersey--and who today appears headed for another four years in power.

Back in 1990, radio talk shows were abuzz with callers blasting Gov. James J. Florio, whose approval rating was to plunge to an abysmal 17 percent.

The next year, the Governor's political fortunes continued to falter, as voters conducted a massive purge of his fellow Democrats and gave Republicans veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

The basis for all the furor was a record $2.8 billion tax hike--$1.2 billion of it earmarked for public schools--that Mr. Florio engineered within months of taking office.

Nevertheless, public-opinion polls this month have strongly indicated that Mr. Florio will defeat his G.O.P. challenger, Christine Todd Whitman, in next week's election.

The Governor's roller-coaster ride from political doom to an expected re-election victory suggests to some that politicians may be able to take the unpopular step of raising taxes for education and other services without paying the ultimate price of defeat at the polls.

"It's not the death knell,'' said John Augenblick, a Denver-based education-finance consultant.

"Somebody can do what educators would say is the right thing,'' Mr. Augenblick continued. "It may be a little rocky, but [voters] will come around.''

Analysts note that the ebbing of public anger over the tax increase is only part of a complex mix of factors that has buttressed Mr. Florio's chances. The incumbent also has benefited from effective use of issues that appeal to middle-class voters, such as gun control and welfare reform, as well as from campaign mistakes by Ms. Whitman.

Anti-Voucher Appeal

For the hundreds of men and women who have gathered here at the old train station in Liberty State Park, however, it is the candidates' stands on education issues that top the agenda. While distrust and resentment of the incumbent are clearly evident, anxiety over the challenger's plans for the schools seems even stronger.

The train tracks are long gone, although guideposts directing passengers toward the "Queen of the Valley'' to Allentown, Pa., or the "Blue Comet'' to Atlantic City still stand.

Today, though, the posts and walls inside this Gothic structure are embellished with handmade posters declaring "Educators for Florio,'' "Vouchers No, Florio Yes,'' and similar declarations of support.

The Hudson County and Jersey City education associations are holding their annual reception--this one in honor of Governor Florio.

Arriving a few minutes ahead of schedule, Mr. Florio and his wife, Lucinda, are quickly surrounded by union leaders, reporters, and photographers. Within moments the throng moves inside the terminal, where the veteran campaigner works the crowd with the intensity that earlier won him seven terms in the U.S. House.

After mounting the stage to address the crowd, Mr. Florio opens by noting differences between himself and Ms. Whitman, a former county freeholder, or commissioner, who rocketed to national prominence in 1990 with her near-defeat of the state's popular U.S. senator, Bill Bradley.

"There is probably no more clear difference on any issue that is more important than the differences we have about the public schools,'' Mr. Florio tells the audience.

"I believe in the public schools. I believe in the children in the public schools, and I believe in the men and women who work in the public schools,'' he says to cheers.

In short order he delivers the knockout punch, the chief reason why these local teachers' union affiliates have thrown their support behind Mr. Florio--Ms. Whitman's advocacy of vouchers for public and private schools.

"Vouchers are just another way of saying you're throwing in the towel,'' jabs Mr. Florio. "We are not about to abandon [the public schools] here in New Jersey.''

Undecided Teachers

Although he receives rousing applause, efforts by some members of the audience to get the crowd to chant "four more years'' die out quickly.

That lack of enthusiasm--earlier evident in the reluctance of many members to abandon the long lines at the buffet tables for a chance to shake hands with their state's chief executive--also shows up clearly in interviews. While some rank-and-file members say they support the Governor wholeheartedly, others are undecided.

"I think I am [for Mr. Florio],'' says Richard Gerber, an industrial-arts and technology teacher. "I just haven't made up my mind yet.''

Another teacher says she too is undecided, but thinks she will vote for Mr. Florio. "We don't want vouchers,'' she stresses.

There are those who truly embrace Governor Florio.

"He has given more to education in the last four years than any governor in the United States,'' says Thomas J. Favia, the president of the Jersey City Education Association.

But even members who endorse him are more inclined to mention what they perceive as Ms. Whitman's negatives than Mr. Florio's positives.

"I'm against the voucher. We need the money in public education,'' says Terry Davis, a speech therapist.

State Union Relents

Here in Jersey City, vouchers are more than an educational theory. Bret Schundler, the Republican Mayor of this traditional Democratic stronghold, has been trying to get private school vouchers passed since he was elected last November. Even though his efforts to get the issue on next week's ballot have been rebuffed by the courts, Jersey City would be a likely candidate for a pilot program of public and private school choice that Ms. Whitman advocates for poor urban districts.

Largely due to the voucher issue, even the New Jersey Education Association has fallen back into the Governor's fold, albeit in a backhanded sort of way.

For the first time in its history, the state union this year opted against endorsing a gubernatorial candidate.

The break can be traced primarily to Mr. Florio's stand on teacher pensions. Under the original version of the state's school-finance-reform law--which some of the 1990 tax increase was used to fund--wealthier school districts were given the responsibility of funding pensions, as one means of equalizing funding across districts.

Enraged union officials rallied their troops to support mostly G.O.P. candidates in the 1991 legislative races. Soon after, the proposed pension shift was killed.

"The first bill they didn't like, they turned on him,'' says Mr. Favia of the Jersey City union. "They find themselves now in a position where it's hard to tell members to vote for him.''

But now the N.J.E.A. will launch what it terms an issues-oriented campaign that will focus on criticism of Ms. Whitman's positions on vouchers and the recertification of teachers.

"It will be difficult for people to conclude not to vote for her,'' concedes Dennis Testa, the union president.

Overshadowed by Taxes

Outside of Jersey City and education circles, the voucher issue has not played widely.

"What one might expect to be a sharp debate over vouchers ... really hasn't materialized here,'' said Dave Kehler, the president of the Public Affairs Research Institute of New Jersey, an independent think tank.

The Whitman campaign views the impact of the issue differently, however. "We seem to be getting some very broad support from some broad quarters,'' said Carl Golden, a spokesman for Ms. Whitman.

Lined up behind the proposal, he said, are parents, religious groups, and officials in Jersey City.

Still, most analysts do not expect education to play a major role in determining the outcome of the race. "The school issues have been overshadowed by both candidates and discussion by Mrs. Whitman to reduce the New Jersey income tax,'' Mr. Kehler said.

Looking for a bold initiative to bring undecided voters into her camp, Ms. Whitman last month proposed a 30 percent income-tax cut over three years.

But the proposal apparently has had little impact on her position in the polls. A New York Times/WCBS-TV poll conducted in the days immediately following the release of her plan gave Mr. Florio 51 percent of the vote, to 30 percent for Ms. Whitman.

A Times/WCBS poll released last week showed the race only slightly tighter, with 50 percent for Mr. Florio and 34 percent for Mrs. Whitman.

Sophisticated Voters

Other polls and interviews by state reporters suggest that many voters are skeptical that Ms. Whitman could carry through on her tax-cut promise, and concerned about the impact on government services and other taxes if she did.

"Voters here are sophisticated enough to see the connection between income taxes and property-tax relief,'' said Nate Scovronick, the director of the Program for New Jersey Affairs at Princeton University. "Just as voters understand that [Mr. Florio's] tax increase was for education and property-tax relief, they understand that cuts in the income tax result in education cuts or increases in the property tax.''

But Mr. Golden argued that it was Mr. Florio, who promised during his 1989 campaign not to raise taxes but switched within months of taking office, who fostered that disbelief. "The skepticism is born from being burned in the past,'' Mr. Golden argued.

In any case, attempts to balance tax cuts by reducing education spending would probably encounter strong opposition in the state courts.

A state judge last month ruled that the current finance-reform law was failing to carry out the mandate of the state supreme court to increase spending in poor urban districts. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1993.)

In addition, a special commission studying education funding is scheduled to report to the Governor and the legislature in two weeks.

If Mr. Florio wins, some observers contend, it may be a sign of a grudging recognition on the part of voters that more taxes may have been necessary.

"Governors and other legislators can win after they have raised taxes,'' said Mr. Testa of the N.J.E.A., "but I think the public is sophisticated enough to [force] them to sell that tax increase.''

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