Facing Our Future

April 11, 2012

Back in November, I shared in this blog about a groundbreaking project  the Council of New Jersey  Grantmakers has been spearheading since 2010 – Facing Our Future.  Last month, we were pleased to release an update to the original report released in January of last year. The full report as well as all the data and background that went into the findings is available on Council’s website  or at www.facingourfuture.org.

Our goals with Facing Our Future are threefold:

  • Educate and engage
  • Provide objective information on projected gaps between revenue and spending  at all levels of government and the resulting service elimination or degradation
  • Provide practical options to begin to address the need for systemic changes and the need to rethink all levels of NJ government.

What is at the core of this work is the desire to empower the citizens of New Jersey by providing valid, nonpartisan information on what our future could easily look like if we don’t make some serious adjustments. It challenges us to consider two basic, yet transformative ideas: what are the core services we need and want from our government entities, and then are we willing to think differently about how they are delivered.

We have been extremely fortunate to have this work lead by a Leadership Group of volunteers that bring decades of exceptional experience, insight and deep commitment to New Jersey.  They each made their careers here, raised their families here and remain fully engaged in wanting the state to excel. The Leadership Group which reflects bipartisan – and nonpartisan – perspectives includes individuals who offered their time and deep knowledge of New Jersey to consider the important fiscal and strategic issues facing our future.  The group represents government, law, politics, the foundation community, business and academe. It includes two former state treasurers, three former attorneys general – one of whom also served as chief justice – a number of former state cabinet members and other high-profile officials of both parties.

Facing Our Future very deliberately takes the long view – five years out. It considers the fiscal future at the state, county, municipal and school district level.  It provides a clear picture of where all public revenues come from and how they are spent. The updated study updates the original research, considering “what has changed” over the year. Although many government leaders across all of New Jersey made difficult choices in the past year to achieve a balanced budget, more – much more – needs to be done.

So what are the key takeaways from this work?  New Jersey cannot only grow, or only cut, or only tax its way out of the current and well-publicized budget problems. These problems are of long standing and restrict our state’s ability to function and thrive for years to come. There is no one solution. It will take many different kinds of strategies and ideas. Over the next five years, New Jersey can’t achieve the required balanced budget without significant cuts in service, programmatic and personnel-related costs at state, county, municipal and school district levels. In the 2012 updated report we have begun to explore some “options”, that is best-in-class ideas that are being implemented here in New Jersey and around the country that could be considered or adapted for use here in New Jersey:

  • Adopting an Internet sales tax
  • Centralizing emergency response systems
  • Combining efforts to maximize special services
  • Consolidating Information Technology (IT) services and updating aging infrastructure
  • Expanding e-government and integrating one-stop resources
  • Exploring transition of developmental disability services to home- and community-based care
  • Identifying – and incentivizing – successful implementation of shared services
  • Identifying creativity and change in purchasing operations
  • Implementing county administration of school districts
  • Right-sizing deployment (police, fire, emergency responders)
  • Sharing examples of municipal consolidation
  • Supporting countywide tax assessment
  • Using Medicaid for health and behavioral health services in county juvenile detention centers (pre-adjudication)

We know that not all the ideas will work in all places (or, what works in Gloucester County – as an example – might not work in Bergen County).  But the idea is to examine and determine what the core service is that we need and want – and to think if something can be done differently. For instance, if the most important condition to ensure quality education is the strong principal, the exceptional teacher in the classroom and children ready to learn, does it matter who holds the bus contract? These are the kinds of questions Facing Our Future encourages New Jerseyans to be asking.

What is clear is that there are no easy, quick solutions to the fiscal problems facing all levels of government in New Jersey. What these options offer are some rational ideas that can help identify priorities for funding/service delivery, help transform us from a 19th century structure to government for the 21st century, and show that with an openness to innovation and entrepreneurial spirit there is real hope.

The Council of New Jersey Grantmakers is proud to be facilitating this work.  We recognize that one of the best tools philanthropy has in its kit is the ability to be a neutral convener. In this case, it means taking issues out of the glare of annual budget dramas and partisan politics. Philanthropy can also provide the space and leadership to take a long view.  The value of this has been echoed in the meetings we had with senior members of the Governor’s staff, the Legislative Leaders on both sides of the aisle and other policymakers and community leaders as we released the report. I encourage everyone to read Facing Our Future and step up to the conversation…everyone needs to play a role.

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.

Images courtesy CNJG