A leader opts for painful honesty in the Garden State

In these times of economic distress, massive job losses, shrunken businesses, bloated governments and runaway public spending, we've been waiting for some politician (other than Ron Paul) to stand and tell the truth. Politicians excel at "kicking the can down the road" -- that is, postponing the inevitable reckoning for unsustainable spending until they are either safely out of office or dead.

But behold! The newly elected governor of New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie, stood in front of 200 of his state's mayors last week and told them basically that there is no more road down which to kick that proverbial can. In his speech at the New Jersey League of Municipalities, Mr. Christie began by calling the legislature's $29 billion budget something out of "Alice in Wonderland." He told the collected hizzoners that the old game of tax and spend was over. He described unhappy meetings in his treasurer's office, where he was presented with 378 possible freezes and lapses to be used to balance the budget. He accepted 375 of them.

One would think this frank talk would get a lot of media coverage, but as important as I think it to be, the only way I learned about it was from Mike Shedlock's invaluable blog, Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis. The talk was 24 minutes long and contains blunt descriptions of New Jersey's huge fiscal problems and the necessary, painful steps that must be taken to remedy them.

"Our citizens are already the most overtaxed in America," the governor said. "U.S. mayors hear it all the time. You know that the public appetite for increasing taxes has reached an end." Later, he said, "You know, at some point, there has to be parity between what is happening in the real world and what is happening in the public sector world. The money does not grow on trees outside this building or outside your municipal building. It comes from the hard-working people of our communities who are suffering and are hurting right now.

"And so we need to get honest with each other," Mr. Christie said. "In this instance, the political class [is] lagging behind the public on this. The public is ready to hear that tough choices have to be made. They're not going to like it. Don't confuse the two. But they are ready to hear the truth." The truth is, for New Jersey and any number of other states and municipalities, it's useless to pretend; we can have no more of telling people that somebody else is going to foot the bill when that's no longer true.

"We have no time left," said the governor, "We have no room left to borrow. We have no room left to tax. So we merely have time left to do this. We are all reaching the edge of a cliff. And it reminds me a bit of that part of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' where he had the seminal decision to make. So what did they do? They held hands and jumped off the cliff. We have to hold hands at every level of government, state, county, municipal, school board. We have to hold hands and jump off the bridge."

Governor Christie has wasted no time in implementing budget freezes through executive action. No doubt there will be a political firestorm in New Jersey as the pinch is felt by politically powerful entities such as the teachers, police and firefighters unions. Whether he can survive tackling the growing fiscal crisis with actual solutions is the question. He told the mayors to get ready for cuts in state aid in his upcoming budget, which will be presented March 16, but he promised he would give them a hand by implementing pension, benefit and arbitration process reform, something that will be bitterly opposed by the aforementioned unions.

Chris Christie will need a lot of public support in his efforts to put the Garden State's house in order; with the public in New Jersey and all across the land depending on government largesse more than ever before, can that actually be expected to happen? A lot rides on the answer to that question. If he can't succeed in this vitally needed reordering of government taxing and spending habits, who elsewhere will be able to, and what instead will happen?

Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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