Like all New Jersey, Sunlight was saddened to hear of Gov. Florio’s passing. To our surprise, we found ourselves agreeing with the NJEA that Gov. Florio’s “willingness to stand by what he believed was right rather than what was politically expedient remains a model for all those who seek to lead and is a testament to his character.” But when Florio was governor, the NJEA did not have such high regard for Florio’s standing up for what’s right rather than politically expedient. In fact, the NJEA helped to ensure that Florio was a one-term governor.
It all started in 1990. After a state Supreme Court ruling mandated increased state aid to poor districts, the newly elected Florio sought to raise taxes and devise a new school funding formula while relieving the state of the teacher pension burden as part of the 1990 Quality Education Act. NJEA President Betty Kraemer highlighted why the NJEA feared such a shift: “In a few scant years, increasing pension costs will eat into the dollars available for programs in schools. Local property taxes will have to rise to support programs.” The NJEA feared rising property taxes because they led to taxpayer revolts against school budgets.
When Florio and other Democrats enacted the pension shift and subsequently moved tax dollars from state education aid to property tax relief, the NJEA endorsed 46 Republicans and three Democrats and put its full muscle behind flipping the legislature in the 1991 legislative election. The result: The NJEA was credited with turning a Democrat majority into a Republican super-majority. As noted in a national news report, “Most observers said the NJEA played the biggest role in turning Democratic majorities in the Assembly and Senate into veto-proof Republican majorities.” The pension shift was postponed and ultimately repealed. (For citations, see Sunlight’s report “Job Number One,” p. 15-16)
Florio’s move was politically inexpedient: it challenged the political status quo. He tried to do the right thing for the state but he crossed its most powerful special interest, the NJEA, and he paid for it. This undoubtedly helped make Florio a one-term governor when he lost to Republican Christine Whitman in 1993.
Decades later, former Gov. Florio observed that the 1991 flip of the legislature and his subsequent reelection loss in 1993 “taught future governors two extraordinarily dangerous lessons about New Jersey politics: Don’t mess with the teachers, and if you raise taxes you’ll get the boot.” Meaning don’t mess with the teachers’ union, the NJEA.
Today, the NJEA remains the most powerful special interest in the state. As was the case in 1991, bowing to the NJEA’s will is the politically expedient move. Gov. Murphy, with his cozy relationship with the NJEA, is no Jim Florio.