Saturday, July 07, 2007

Corzine and Kolluri can't be trusted

Daily Muse: THE FORK IN THE ROAD from In The Lobby

Last week, Gov. Jon Corzine was huffing and puffing in indignation about how people were playing politics with his precious plan to “monetize” the toll roads, and jumping to conclusions before they knew what the plan was.

Yesterday, a British engineering firm was out surveying the New Jersey Turnpike, from Interchange 1 by the Delaware Memorial Bridge, through Interchange 4 in Mount Laurel.

Now, why would you need to survey the roads if you aren’t going to lease them, or give control of them to someone else?

"We are in the midst of conducting a study, pursuant to the governor's direction, to examine state assets and the monetization of state assets," said Treasury spokesman Tom Vincz told Gannett, adding later that the study is for "a potential transaction that could involve one of our toll roads."

In the gobbledygook language of Corzine, let us translate: “Yes, we plan to turn control of the Turnpike over to a new entity, but we’re not ready to tell you about it yet.”

Corzine angrily said last week that he had no plans to sell the roads, or lease the toll roads to a private corporation or a foreign firm.

But he conveniently left out a ban on leasing the roads to a nonprofit company.

And don’t think that is an accident.

Although Team Corzine is said to still be finalizing its product, here is their current thinking regarding how they plan to make money off the toll roads, as described by Gannett: A new public, nonprofit entity would take control of one or more of the toll roads. The new agency would sell bonds, which would be used to pay down existing state debt, and then repay investors with the cash collected from increased tolls.

Warning bells should go off in the heads of taxpayers on two points:
1) Yes, the bonds would be used to pay down the debt. But it won’t be used to reduce the tax burden on average citizens. Corzine plans to immediately spend that money on his pet causes. In other words, our children will be paying tomorrow for whatever increased spending Corzine wants to do today.
2) Investors would be repaid with increased tolls. And, what’s worse, according to Gannett, while this new public entity would have “some public oversight,” it could be “insulated from the public and political pressures that come with toll increases.

We all know what that means. Higher tolls, and no way for the commuter to do anything about it.

What is so ludicrous is that for each of these “benefits” Corzine gives us, we wind up paying for them. For example, we get to pay one penny more on our sales tax in order to get back more money in increased property tax rebates. Here, Corzine is going to reduce New Jersey’s $30 billion debt burden by turning control of the roads over to a new entity, that will sell those bonds to investors, who will make money by raising tolls on those of us who have to commute on the toll roads.

And what’s worse, Corzine isn’t talking about reducing our tax burden once he frees up the debt. No, he has projects and plans he wants to enact that will cost money, and he can’t do those projects and plans unless he frees up the debt burden. Which means turning over control of the toll roads, and asking commuters to pay more.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, put it best: "It really comes down to borrowing against future money. It all involves spending and pledging money that my children have not seen yet so we can have it today. We spend tomorrow's dollars today."

Meanwhile, that London-based surveyor, Halcrow Group Limited, was awarded a bid back in January. The firm, according to Treasury officials, are doing “detailed studies on the life cycles of our roadways, maintenance costs, looking at the roads, looking at facilities associated with the roads."

Do you remember Corzine announcing that back then? We don’t either.

What is so hypocritical about the way that Corzine has been conducting his asset monetization campaign is that he's been hiding it from the taxpayers and legislators. This is the same governor who railed about the need for an open and transparent form of government, and who has to date, spent more than $4 million of tax dollars on his asset monetization plans, without any public oversight at all.

Was there language in the FY2007 budget that allowed him to hire a London firm to study the toll roads? Shouldn't the Legislature have had to have signed on to spending this money? Otherwise, where are the checks and balances? Not to mention, where is their duty to the public?

It seems to us that when they get around to giving Republicans on July 12 those documents they’re seeking on asset monetization, Team Corzine ought to hold a press conference and let us know exactly what they have been doing, what they’ve learned, and what their proposal looks like, and quit hiding behind waiting until the “recipe” is perfected.

The Legislatue, and the public, ought to have a chance to weigh in on this plan, before it becomes a fait accompli . Burying a sentence in the FY2008 budget language doesn't count as accountability or oversight in our book.

Pollsters say the public may not understand terms like asset monetization.

But they sure do understand terms like turning over control of the toll roads. Borrowing money against the future. And higher tolls.

And so far, they haven’t much liked what they’ve heard.

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