After more than three years of watching Governor Martin O'Malley, Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller manage the state budget on a wing and a prayer, I was impressed by the candor and leadership shown by New Jersey's new governor, Chris Christie, in his recent address to the New Jersey Legislature.
Gov. Christie makes Maryland's leadership look parochial and petty in comparison. While they calculate the political benefits of incrementalism, doing just enough to meet the letter of the law while kicking the problem another year down the road, Gov. Christie put the state legislature and the people on notice that business as usual ends today.
What did he do that our leadership has failed to do? Let's examine his approach and learn from it.
First, he told the people the truth about the budget shenanigans of the past:
"The budget passed less than eight months ago, in June of last year, contained all of the same worn out tricks of the trade that have become common place in Trenton, that have driven our citizens to anger and frustration and our wonderful state to the edge of bankruptcy In June of 2009, was there anyone in New Jersey, other than in the department of treasury, who actually believed any revenues would grow in 2009-2010?Sound familiar? How many times have Marylanders been told that this fix or that fix should put us in good shape, only for us to find out that we'd been bamboozled?
"Any wonder why we are in such big trouble? Any question why the people don't trust their government anymore and demanded change in November? Today, we must make a pact with each other to end this reckless conduct with the people's government. Today, we come to terms with the fact that we cannot spend money on everything we want. Today, the days of Alice in Wonderland budgeting in Trenton end.
"Our Constitution requires a balanced budget. Our commitment requires us to begin the next fiscal year with a prudent opening balance. Our conscience and common sense require us to fix the problem in a way that does not raise taxes on the most overtaxed citizens in America. Our love for our children requires that we do not shove today's problems under the rug only to be discovered again tomorrow. Our sense of decency must require that we stop using tricks that will make next year's budget problem even worse."
Remember the $1.4 billion tax increase that was supposed to solve our deficit problems once and for all, and about which Senator Miller declared, "It was an overwhelming success "?
Remember how the state was going to hell in a hand basket unless the voters approved the slots referendum? Has a single dime been raised or allocated from slots?
Remember how Maryland begged for and received over $4 billion in federal stimulus funds over two years so the state could avoid major cuts? Where did all that money go?
Not only did these steps fail to solve the long-term budget crisis, overall state spending went up every year rather than down. Yet our leaders groan about the hard choices they've had to make and the great leadership they've shown. "The days of Alice in Wonderland budgeting" are alive and well in Annapolis.
The second thing Governor Christie did is take immediate and decisive action on spending:
"This morning, I signed an executive order freezing the necessary state spending to balance our budget.
"We will freeze the spending of unspent technical balances across a wide array of state programs. This includes everything from unspent funds to upgrade energy systems in state facilities to those aimed at assisting local governments in their consolidation plans.
"Not everything is painless. Some projects will be delayed or terminated, some services will be reduced. But in total, we can reduce spending by over $550 million this year by lapsing these unspent balances - by not spending these funds and applying them now towards our multi-billion dollar budget gap
" By far the biggest category of spending we will need to cut, however, is that for programs which actually have merit, and in most cases make sense, but which we simply cannot afford at this time. Like any family, and like forty two other states with constitutionally required balanced budgets, we must live within our means "
" That means making some tough choices. It means tightening our belts. It means making do with the resources we have. And it means charting the course to reform now so that our spending will be more effective in the future."
Gov. Christie's spending freeze prevents the state legislature from spending another dime going forward. He also declares that all programs are subject to scrutiny - no exceptions, no exemptions.
By contrast, the Maryland leadership exempted most of the budget from consideration for reductions, leaving a very small amount from which to achieve a $2-3 billion reduction in costs.
Gov. Christine also resisted the urge to tax an already overtaxed public:
"New Jersey does not have a revenue problem-we already have higher taxes than any other state in the union. We have gone down the road of ever higher taxes to pay for Trenton's addiction to spending. What has it given us? 10.1 percent unemployment, a dormant economy and a failure of hope for growth in our future. Higher taxes is the road to ruin. We must, and we will, shrink our government."The only reason O'Malley, Busch and Miller haven't raised taxes is because it's an election year. If they are in the driver's seat again after November, they will raise your taxes - bank on it. They're like addicts who need to keep stealing in order to feed their habit - spending without accountability for results.
Finally, Gov. Christie appealed to the people of New Jersey to share in the sacrifices of the coming days:
"Suburban districts will sacrifice. Urban districts will sacrifice. Rural districts will sacrifice. Some, both inside and outside this chamber, will urge you to retreat to the corner and protect your own piece of turf. Our state is in crisis. Our people are hurting. Now is the time when we all must resist the traditional, selfish call to protect your own turf at the cost of our state. It is time to leave the corner, join the sacrifice, come to the center of the room and be part of the solution. I urge all of us to come to the center of the room voluntarily, to stand up to the special interests, to fix our broken state - together. For those who continue to defend the old ways of selfishly protecting turf, who stay in the corner defending parochial interests, please be on notice - people of good will who want a better, stronger New Jersey will band together to come into those corners and drag you to the center of the room to make our state the place we know it can be."Gov. Christie has a big fight ahead of him. Cronyism, corruption, arrogance and lack of transparency are commonplace in New Jersey politics, and he has a lot of inertia to overcome. He sounds determined, however, and his willingness to tackle the budget crisis in his state head on should motivate the people of New Jersey to force their legislators into action.
We in Maryland stand at a similar crossroads. Our leadership is arrogant and dismissive of the people because they've not been held accountable for decades. Yesterday evening, a voter was telling me how incensed he was after attending a legislative breakfast where Senator Miller and other local legislators basically dictated to the attendees which bills would and wouldn't receive consideration during this year's general session.
I told the voter that is what happens when they have no fear of losing their jobs. We get the government we elect and, this time, if we truly want a different approach, we need a different outcome in November - across the board.
If there's a Gov. Christie here in Maryland somewhere, we need you now.
Ron Miller, of Huntingtown, is a military veteran, conservative writer and activist, former and current candidate for the District 27 Maryland Senate seat, communications director for the Calvert County Republican Party, and executive director of Regular Folks United, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Ron is a regular contributor to RegularFolksUnited.com, American Thinker, and RedCounty.com. You can also follow Ron on his website TeamRonMiller.com, as well as Twitter and Facebook.