By Nina Stack
President, Council of New Jersey Grantmakers
Against the backdrop of a prolonged and dramatic budget crisis, a statewide team of former senior level government officials and others is seeking to engage leaders and local residents in needed discussion about the long-view of New Jersey’s financial solutions at all levels of government.
Beginning in 2010, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers (CNJG) started working with this non-partisan, volunteer group because we recognized philanthropy might be able to provide a neutral and “safe space” necessary to examine the complex and critical problem our state faces. Earlier this year, we issued a report that provided an independent, objective analysis of how various government entities in New Jersey raise and spend money. In Facing Our Future, the leadership group concluded that the scale of fiscal problems facing New Jersey today dwarfs any problems faced in the past. Although our current fiscal crisis built incrementally over many years, fully unwinding those decisions to restore fiscal health is neither practical nor realistic.
What Facing Our Future does is foster a much-needed civic conversation; it looks at all revenue sources and all public spending across state, municipalities, school districts and counties. More telling, the report shows how entangled the fiscal situations are at different levels of government. Over 40 percent of the state budget consists of state aid payments to municipalities, counties and school districts. Reductions in state aid coupled with property tax constraints shift the budget cuts to another venue. The result? A problem solved at one level moves the fiscal stress to another.
The report also raises the surprisingly simple – yet real – questions before us now. Do we look ahead at the fiscal trajectory and make purposeful decisions that will lay a new firm foundation, or do we just whack away incrementally at our public services in response to continued fiscal pressures, until we are surprised one day at how degraded our services have become? Will we be confronted with the elimination of some service we valued, and wonder if we had been more engaged would we have had more control over the choices being made?
Admittedly, tough budget choices were made this year. However, they haven’t solved the problem and a lot more are needed. In fact, the problem can’t be solved at any single level of government. We need a wholly different conversation about what we want in public services, how much we are willing to pay for them, and how much we are willing to accept changes in those services to preserve their value.
Usually, fiscal stress causes individuals – including citizens and elected leaders – to protect their priorities. The Facing Our Future leadership group is using public outreach to encourage civic discussion by a broad spectrum of New Jersey’s citizens. Through this outreach, we are also informing the public about the scope, nature and extent of our shared fiscal future, and sparking open-minded conversations about what’s next and what are our options.
In the coming weeks, there are two symposia designed to engage critical stakeholders in a series of focused public discussions about the report’s findings and to generate discussion that will help identify and prioritize options for addressing our state’s current fiscal crisis. On November 17th, The Walter Rand Institute at Rutgers-Camden will host a Facing Our Future symposia. In conjunction with PlanSmart NJ, a second Facing Our Future event will take place on December 9th at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
The initial Facing Our Future report stopped short of prescriptions. Our intent was to lay out the issues and get people informed. There is no silver bullet for maintaining desired services in our state’s fiscal scenario. As the report makes clear, the entire public enterprise must be examined, as tweaking parts of the equation will not be sufficient remedy.
You can view the full “Facing Our Future” report at www.facingourfuture.org. To date, support for Facing Our Future has been provided by the Fund for New Jersey, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Nicholson Foundation, PSEG Foundation, the William Penn Foundation and a private donor.
Nina Stack is the President of Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association for corporate, family, independent, and community foundations. She is a regular contributor to the Dodge blog.