Daily Record (New Jersey), August 16, 2009
Sam Houston and N.J. - perfect together?
Let's take a little stroll down governor-memory lane. Just to pique your interest, here's a quiz that will be answered at the end of the column: Who is the only American to serve as the governor of two states? Hints: He was also a general and president. And, oh, he didn't complete either stint in the governor's mansion.
When we think of all-time bad governors, there are certainly many contenders — including some still serving or only recently retired. There are sex scandals, financial corruption, being in the back pockets of powerful political bosses and business interests. Then there are the Long brothers — Huey and Earl — surely the only sibling governors to both have movies made about them featuring Huey's demagoguery ("All the King's Men") and Earl's romantic dalliance with a stripper ("Blaze").
On the other hand, revisionist biographies of both men pointed out their progressive legislative programs (Bill Dodd's memoir of Earl, "Peapatch Politics," and T. Harry William's 1970 Pulitzer Prize winning bio of Huey).
Then there were the bigots — Orval Faubus (who moderated his racial views), George Wallace (who was also repentant), Lester Maddox (who surprised people by promoting African-Americans in state government) — and more, so many more. But, whatever the ups and downs of these and other governors, there is only one who is likely to have permanently ruined her state — Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey.
The occasion for reflecting on this is Moody's awarding the state a negative bond rating — paradoxically meaning it will have to pay more to float its strangulating and irremediable debt burden. Here's how Moody's described the situation: New Jersey has "a sizable structural imbalance, one of the highest debt burdens, one of the lowest-funded pension ratios, and one of the highest post-retirement health insurance liabilities in the country."
Whitman put this catastrophe in motion with several key moves. First, she began borrowing without getting voters' approval, creating bonds that are only guaranteed out of the state's general obligations. James E. McGreevey — a man famous for being incapable of balancing his own finances — followed Whitman's lead. These bonds have lower ratings, which cost New Jersey hundreds of millions in extra interest payments. Even more important to the state's unsupportable debt was Whitman's decision to pay government retirees' health benefits as an ongoing expense, rather than fund this obligation — called pay-as-you-go.
These payments have risen exponentially, along with pension costs, as more government workers retire and as health care costs rise. Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans have raised pension benefits in recent memory. Of course, the current gubernatorial campaign is all about meeting this looming Armageddon.
And each candidate — incumbent Democrat Jon S. Corzine and Republican Chris Christie — seems intent on ducking the issue. To his credit, Corzine (a man who as former chairman of Goldman Sachs at least understands what a billion dollars means) presented a plan early in his tenure to raise billions through increasing tolls on state highways. When this resulted in his popularity ratings plummeting and constant attacks at town meetings around the state, Corzine quickly abandoned any such specific proposals. For his part, Christie's plan to remedy New Jersey's terminal financial "structural imbalance" is to lower state income taxes.
Oh, I need to answer my opening quiz. The only governor of two of these united states was Sam Houston. After gaining popularity in the War of 1812 and as a legendary "Indian" fighter, he entered Tennessee politics, and was eventually elected governor. Unfortunately, Houston's rough-hewn ways did not take well with his 18-year-old plantation society wife, who soon abandoned the marriage, leading to Houston's resignation of the governorship.
Houston then entered a rough period, returning to live with the Cherokees, drinking, and — defending Native American interests — beating a congressman with a Hickory stick. In disgrace, Houston moved to Texas, then a Mexican province. He eventually led Texas to independence as a general, became president of the Republic of Texas, then a senator and governor who supported Texas remaining in the Union after it became a state and the Civil War approached. When Texas seceded, Houston was forced out of the governorship.
Well, if Sam Houston could redeem himself, maybe New Jersey can.
Stanton Peele is a resident of Chatham Township.