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Monday, July 26, 2010

In Politics, Know Your Audience

 Casual observers of politics and policy forget that there are several constituencies at work. There are different agendas and sets of responsibilities. Some parties owe legal duties (what's called a fiduciary duty) to their constituents. Beyond the fog of spokespeople's misstatements or outright lies, these duties often explain what's going on.








In New Jersey, we have seen the last six months the new Governor, Chris Christie (aka the next President of the United States), confront the teachers' union New Jersey Educational Association ("NJEA" for short). He has blamed the NJEA for the state's budget shortfall, largely due to runaway pension obligations and salaries.


Guess what? Christie is right. Sort of.

Guess something else? The union did its job.


The union is there to represent its members. Many of those members are long retired, and are not teachers. If you were to weigh all the union members in accordance with their lifetime paid union dues, you would see the heaviest weighting towards retirees, followed by longtime teachers. Hence this is the constituency the NJEA serves.


The pablum about the NJEA fighting for teachers is true...the NJEA fights for teachers who were teaching...in 1975.


This explains why middle aged and young teachers, many of whom make $50-70,000 a year and who face the brunt of the firings, feel pinched by their union (which is giving them third-class treatment) and by Christie, who unfairly and illogically tarnished the entire profession at budget time.


If Christie had given the explanation just stated above, he would have preserved significant young teacher support and some "civilian" support as well. Don't forget that Christie's favorable rating in New Jersey is still under 50 percent! (How that makes someone presidential timber escapes me? But don't neglect the role of family and fundraisers. Now you see the relevance of Reform Jersey Now.)

Illogically, Christie went after the most vulnerable -- and least culpable -- segment of the NJEA constituency -- and the one segment most likely to garner public support when attacked. This was a serious error politically and policy-wise.

The problem lies with the union...which did its job perfectly well. Christie may not have an answer for the union's position (union contracts are valid contracts). That may explain the New Jersey "soft cap with holes" on property taxes, the one Christie pushed which exempts from the cap the very items which are pressuring municipal budgets and homeowners: pension obligations, debt service and health care costs.


Real confrontation -- real reform -- might involve exploring the use of the municipal bankruptcy chapter (Chapter 9). So far, we're seeing gimmicks.


Eric Dixon is a lawyer in New York and New Jersey. He can be reached at 917-696-2442.







   

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