I recently broke down and read by local newspaper which, for $1.75 on Sunday, is generally a waste of money. But there was a great story in there that needs repeating because it shows what Governor Chris Christie has to deal with every day and, more importantly, the citizens of New Jersey have to deal with. For anyone who has ever travelled from north to south in New Jersey (or vice versa), chances are you used the Garden State Parkway. The road is managed by the Turnpike Authority which decided they were going to widen the road from 2 lanes to three lanes in either direction from milepost at the southern end of Atlantic County to milepost 64.5 near Toms River in central New Jersey. This corridor is one of growth and on busy weekends as New Yorkers and others from point north head south to the beaches, the roads can clog up rather quickly, especially nearing the toll plazas. As part of the widening project, they contracted to have trees removed– like $9.2 million worth of trees. In New Jersey, we have the No Net Loss Reforestation Act that states that if the area involved is greater than 1 acre, for every tree removed, a new one must be planted. If unable to plant one, the developer pays into a fund and someone purchases and buys a tree and plants it somewhere. Obviously, 30.4 miles of roadway exceeds the acre. Except, no one has paid anyone for the trees, nor have any trees been replanted. What we have is 30 miles of roadway that looks like Japan after the tsunami. There are piles of wood chips 20 feet high. Certain species, like ospreys, bald eagles, and frogs have lost their habitat as a result. All of this would be understandable since although I like seeing ospreys and bald eagles, I also do not like sitting in heavy traffic heading north on a summer afternoon. But, here is the kicker…or two. First, the Turnpike Authority described the project as “minor” deforestation to the DEP, our environmental enforcer. Secondly, and get ready for it, the Turnpike does not have the money to do the road widening project. So in New Jersey, we pay a company $9.2 million to remove trees in anticipation of a road widening project for which we have no funds to start the project with in the first place. In its place, we have a 30-mile stretch of highway that looks like a nuclear disaster area. Oh—and with the barriers and heavy machinery and such, traffic moves slower on that 30-mile stretch in winter than it ever did in summer, two lanes and all.
But that is not all. Our illustrious Supreme Court that brought us such great decisions as the Abbott Schools and the Mt. Laurel “every town has to have low income housing” decisions recently tasked a judge with determining the merits of a case. That case was brought by an advocacy group in Newark questioning Christie’s decision to cut $1.6 billion from the education budget last year. This special “master” determined that the $1.6 billion cut was detrimental to public education and that the state must reinstate those funds. The Supreme Court can reject (fat chance), accept (likely) or modify that report (possibly). In other words, the Supreme Court of New Jersey will be telling the Governor and the Legislature how to spend $1.6 billion the state does not have. In the judge’s favor, he did note that the state had spent more in the previous 8 years on education than most states spend in 20 years. What Judge Doyne is saying is that when it comes to education, the state’s financial situation be damned. It depends upon what some judge determines is an appropriate level of funding.
We can debate whether more money for schools equals a better education. I think not. In my home town, the state spends about $4,500 per pupil. We have our share of ESL students yet we turn out literate children who actually do rather well in high school and beyond. Conversely, in Camden, the state spends about $20,000 per pupil (a much larger district also). The result is high drop out rates and performance on tests that embarrass not only the district, but the state (maybe the entire Mid-Atlantic region). So money does not solve educational inadequacies. But, according to Judge Doyne, and most likely our Supreme Court, real statistics and evidence be damned. It also needs to be noted that those $1.6 billion in cuts were approved by a Democratically-controlled Legislature. It behooves me to see how a court can dictate to elected officials that they must spend non-existent money. In New Jersey, there is no separation of powers which, I thought, was a mainstay of a republican form of government, not a “thorough and efficient education.”