CAPE MAY, N.J. — Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who sometimes describes himself as a washed-up bond trader, is still trading.
Now that he has begun his travels around the state to sell wary residents on his multibillion-dollar plan to bail New Jersey out of its fiscal mess by sharply raising highway tolls, Mr. Corzine is engaging in a familiar game of give-and-take.
One day he suggests that he might abandon his plan to turn a portion of Route 440 between Woodbridge and Staten Island into a toll road, pleasing countless commuters and a couple of crucial allies in the State Senate. (We know one of the the ultimate goal anyway – gain support by John Wisniewski.
See Mr. Wisniewski was opposed, publicly, to the whole toll hike plan from the get-go – however: I’ll guarantee that Jon Corzine and John Wisniewski will hold hands soon. I bet that behind closed doors, Corzine made a deal from day One- He’ll lay out a plan to put a toll on 440, and after a few weeks, let Wisniewski save face by insisting that he fought hard against the plan, and since he won that fight with the Governor, is now is in full support of the plan because “it’ll be best for the state of NJ”)
Let’s see if my gut feeling pans out.
Then next he warns legislators and mayors that if they reject his plan, the state will be in no fiscal condition to provide property tax relief or finance important transportation projects.
And he is far from finished.
At all four town hall meetings so far — including the one here in Cape May Court House on Saturday — and in frequent briefings with reporters since unveiling his proposal two weeks ago, Mr. Corzine has emphasized words like “negotiate” and “flexibility.”
“I have made expressions of flexibility,” Mr. Corzine told reporters in Trenton on Friday. “We will adjust the plan to meet some of these challenges that are legitimate concerns, and we’ll have to work to see how much adjusting the plan actually ends up undermining its capacity to meet the dual objectives of paying down 50 percent of the state’s debt and financing our state’s transportation projects for a generation.”
Not willing to give up the spotlight, or the credit, the Senate Budget Committee plans to hold a hearing Wednesday to press the administration for more details. Senator Barbara Buono, a Democrat from Middlesex County who is the committee chairwoman, has come out against the Route 440 proposal, which would affect her constituents.
No one expected that Mr. Corzine would have an easy time convincing a skittish Legislature and a public pummeled by falling housing prices and rising gas prices and worried about a looming recession that the best remedy to ease the state’s $32 billion debt and to repair its aging transportation network would be drastic toll increases on the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Atlantic City Expressway.
But since announcing his plan, Mr. Corzine has suggested an array of compromises, essentially guaranteeing that the final proposal will be noticeably different from the initial one.
The crucial question is how much he is willing to bend to accommodate taxpayers and lawmakers without scaring off the traders who will be asked to sell as much as $40 billion in bonds.
Two legislators are already drafting bills that would provide tax credits to people hit hardest by the toll increases, which would begin in 2010 with a 50 percent increase every four years through 2022, and then be indexed for inflation until 2085.
All of this horse trading, some say, is probably Mr. Corzine’s strategy of asking for too much so that he will end up with just enough. Indeed, finance professionals assume that Mr. Corzine has crunched the numbers, and crunched them again, to come up with a spreadsheet for all seasons.
“He probably thinks he’s only going to get one swing at this,” said Robert L. Vitale, a partner with the law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker who works on infrastructure deals. “But everyone is going to assume he has another number because you always have to have another number.”
Mr. Corzine has also signaled a willingness to give discounts to frequent toll road users. And during a meeting with reporters and members of the editorial board of The New York Times, he suggested that he might give discounts to people who drive hybrids or other vehicles that get more than perhaps 30 miles per gallon.
“Might very well do that,” he said.
Timing may be another reason Mr. Corzine is willing to compromise. He says he wants the Legislature to act by March so that he can factor the figures into next year’s budget, which must be approved by July 1 and is projected to have a $3 billion deficit.
Still, Mr. Corzine’s seeming flexibility on some issues is being matched by his willingness to play hardball on others.
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