Monday, February 20, 2012

New Jersey’s 2012 Agenda

With Governor Chris Christie about to unveil his new budget, it’s a good time to reconcile the agenda items of various players in New Jersey’s policy process.  Unfortunately, it appears that very few ledger entries line up.
The governor’s State of the State address last month laid out his key agenda items for the year.  These include a 10% income tax cut, reform of drug sentencing laws, and education initiatives such as teacher tenure and charter school expansion.  He is also pushing the recommendations of the Barer Report to merge units of the state’s higher education system, including Rutgers, Rowan, and UMDNJ.
The legislature’s agenda can be found by examining what the Democratic leadership has put on the docket this session. As we all know, same sex marriage was Priority One. Legislative leaders have also been talking about a push for a minimum wage increase and bringing back the so-called millionaires’ tax.
Hmm.  There appears to be no commonality between the gubernatorial and legislative agendas.  But of course, they are doing this for the good of the New Jersey so some of these items must rank high with the public.  Right?
Not quite.  The recent Monmouth University/NJ Press Media Poll asked Garden State residents to name, in their own words, the most pressing issues facing the state.

Let’s look at how some of the leaders’ agenda items stack up with the issues that occupy their constituents.
Same-sex marriage?  Only 2% of the public name this as one of the state’s most important concerns.
Higher education?  Just 3% say this needs to top the agenda.
Drugs and crime?  That’s a priority for only 5%.
How about an income tax cut or the millionaires’ tax – those have to be important, right?  Just 8% of New Jerseyans say changes to the state’s income tax needs to be on the front burner.
Public schools?  Well, this one is a little higher at 20%, although it’s not clear that the governor’s specific agenda items are what these concerned residents have in mind.
So, what does top the public agenda here in New Jersey?  What are the burning issues that Garden State residents want their elected leaders to tackle? 
It’s no contest:  Property Taxes and Jobs.  Each was mentioned by a whopping 42% of those polled!  And this was off the top of their heads, mind you – the poll didn’t provide choices.
To be fair, both the governor and legislature claim they have introduced proposals meant to spur job growth, although the comprehensiveness of any jobs plan is not apparent. 
The disappearance of property taxes from the leadership agenda, though, is truly curious.  After pushing for a toolkit of reforms in his first two years in office, the governor seems to have declared Mission Accomplished.
The Democrats have caught on to that and are trying to tag Governor Christie with dropping the ball.  But that is all they have done.  The legislature has a whole raft of property tax legislation from prior years – including from the ill-fated 2006 special session – that they appear to have absolutely no intention of moving through the legislature.
If you’ve paid close attention to the rhetoric out of Trenton over the past few weeks, you’ll notice that both Republicans and Democrats have ramped up the “Property Taxes & Jobs” mantra in their public statements.  At least they now recognize they can’t escape the public’s demand for action on these issues.
The question is whether they will put any meat on those bones by enacting an agenda in line with these goals.  Or will there continue to be a disconnect between Trenton’s agenda and the rest of New Jersey?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Trenton's Referendum Mania

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ
It’s referendum mania in Trenton!  The governor and Republican legislators want to put same sex marriage to a public vote.  Democratic legislators want to put charter school approval to a public vote.
What do they have in common?  In each case, the sponsors are opposed to the policy in question.  Many believe that they are using the referendum option as a “democratic” smokescreen for a policy they don’t want enacted.
Not only is this bald-faced politics, but it’s a slippery slope.  The public lacks both access to information and the ability to deliberate on these types of issues – issues which our founders specifically said should be left to an informed, deliberative system of representative government.
The New Jersey Supreme Court declared that the state must provide and protect identical legal rights for civilly joined same sex couples as it does for married heterosexual couples. Same sex marriage advocates argue this hasn’t happened in practice under the state’s civil union law.  They have provided witnesses who give compelling stories of instances when their rights were denied.  Opponents have argued these are isolated instances that can be corrected with improvements to existing law.
The researcher in me says there is a pretty easy way to determine this.  Take a random sample of same sex civil union couples and a matched sample of heterosexual couples married at the same time and survey them.  If the former group has had significantly more problems with health insurance, parental rights, having next of kin rights honored, etc. – then the argument that civil unions don’t meet the Court’s mandate would be strong.  If not, perhaps the incidents are isolated and modifications to the current bill are all that is needed.  This is something that should be examined honestly by our three governmental branches.
Polls, including a recent one by Monmouth University/NJ Press Media, show that public support for same sex marriage has risen in the past couple of years.  It appears that the debate – particularly the argument that civil unions are not providing equal rights – may be resonating with more New Jerseyans.  Or perhaps, residents are simply getting tired of this debate and want to move in a definitive direction so government will start concentrating on other pressing issues.  Either way, the state of public opinion is absolutely no justification for putting this issue on the ballot.
The bottom line is you don’t put civil rights to a public vote.  The founders were very clear on this.  That is why they created a Republic with (supposedly) deliberative institutions of elected representatives.  Our system was specifically set up to protect the interests of groups who may be in a numerical minority.  The folks in Trenton may do well by brushing up on James Madison’s argument to that effect in the Federalist Papers (#10).
Specifically he wrote that the purpose of our system of government is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens … [so] that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the People, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves.”
Now, I do agree that limited initiative and referendum, like the type championed by the late Congressman Bob Franks, makes a lot of sense.  Borrowing and bonding – that should always be approved by those who are responsible to pay the debt.  Certain other macro-fiscal issues are also appropriate for a public vote.  And anything that requires an outright change to the state’s Constitution requires voter approval.
But putting anything beyond that on the ballot is an invitation to demagoguery.  And once that door is open, it will be near impossible to close.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What We Learned from Nevada

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

[Acknowledgements:  Some of the data for this analysis was made available by NBC News, where I was an entrance poll analyst on caucus night.]

As I write this – more than 12 hours after the final caucus concluded – over one quarter of Nevada’s votes remain to be tallied.  I’m guessing that Chumlee of “Pawn Stars” fame has been put in charge of the Clark County vote count operation.

Even so, we know the basic results from Saturday.  And they have raised some new talking points among pundits.  Are strong conservatives becoming more comfortable with Mitt Romney?  And can we glean anything from these results about how he would fare in a general election?

Even though the final vote totals aren’t in, the entrance poll gives some insight on emerging trends that have an impact on front-runner Mitt Romney.

Conservatives and Evangelicals

Nevada’s caucuses saw the highest proportion of voters calling themselves very conservative.  Nearly half – 49% – described themselves that way, which is comparable to Iowa (47%) but much higher than South Carolina (36%), Florida (33%), and New Hampshire (21%).

Romney lost these voters in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.  He had a nominal win among the smaller group of very conservative voters in New Hampshire.  But in Nevada, he racked up nearly half of this group’s vote – 46% to 25% for New Gingrich.

So what was different about Nevada’s very conservative voters?  On the whole, not much.  They look the same as very conservative voters in the other four states both demographically (age, gender, income, etc.) and in terms of issues and candidate quality preferences.  The single area where the Silver State’s conservative bloc differs from prior contests is the significantly lower proportion of evangelical voters.

In fact, Nevada’s caucuses saw the second smallest proportion of voters who described themselves as Evangelical Christians.  It was 28% there, compared to 64% in South Carolina, 57% in Iowa, and 47% in Florida.  Only New Hampshire was lower at 22%.

Of course one of the reasons for the low evangelical total in Nevada is the high number of Mormons.  More than 1-in-4 caucus goers belong to the same faith as Mitt Romney.  In the four prior contests, Mormons numbered only 1%.  As expected they went overwhelmingly for Romney – about 9-in-10.

Both Mormons and Catholics are much less likely than Protestants and other Christians to call themselves “born again.”  Mormons and Catholics combined made up 46% of the Republican electorate in Nevada, 36% in New Hampshire, and 33% in Florida – the states that Romney won so far.  These two denominations accounted for only 14% of voters in South Carolina, where Gingrich was the victor.  (The Iowa entrance poll did not include data on religion.)

The importance of this is that there exists a correlation between being a strong conservative and being evangelical.  In states where Romney did poorly with conservatives, the exit polls suggest that it had less to do with his experience and issue positions and more to do with his religion.  It seems that concerns about Romney’s faith continue to occupy the minds of many GOP voters.  This will be important to watch in heavily evangelical Protestant states, particularly in the South.

The Rich Thing

The exit polls in the five nomination contests held so far show a significant wealth gap in Mitt Romney’s support.  In the three states he won, Romney garnered between 48% and 58% support levels among Republican voters earning more than $100,000 a year.  And his share was even higher among those who earn over $200,000.

More importantly, Romney did worse among voters earning below $30,000 than he did among the wealthiest voters in all five states contested so far.  The gap in his support between high earners and low earners was 5 points in South Carolina, 10 points in Florida, 17 points in New Hampshire, 21 points in Iowa, and a whopping 29 points in Nevada.

It seems that inartful comments about the poor and firing people, not to mention Donald Trump’s endorsement, has done nothing to help Romney close this “wealth gap” among GOP voters.  If anything, it may have been exacerbated by these missteps.

The take away from Nevada is this.  If Mitt Romney can navigate around the evangelical vote to win the GOP nomination, a key task in November will be to convince less affluent independent voters that he is on their side.  So far, he has not been able to seal that deal with lower income voters from his own party.