Corzine remains resolute on cutting debt

February 29, 2008 10:59:23 AM PST
For Gov. Jon S. Corzine, debt remains public enemy No. 1 in New Jersey. The governor said he's as resolute as ever that something be done to pay down a significant amount of state debt, even if lawmakers and the public dislike his plan to do that by increasing highway tolls.

"Paying down debt is every bit as much on my mind," Corzine told The Associated Press Friday in an interview.

But putting new taxes on the public during a recession "is not a good idea," he said.

Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs chairman, is trying to fix state finances long plagued by annual deficits, high taxes and debt.

He proposed a $33 billion budget on Tuesday with $2.7 billion in cuts, and also wants to limit future state spending and borrowing. The Democratic governor also wants to pay at least half the state's debt and provide money for transportation improvements for 75 years.

To do so, Corzine in January proposed increasing highway tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. But no lawmaker has backed the plan, and polls show about 70 percent of the public opposes it.

Corzine acknowledges the lack of support, but insists something must be done to cut debt.

"To not take that challenge on is just more of the same," Corzine said.

Lawmakers opposed to increased tolls have proposed alternatives that include gas tax increases, creating a water tax and selling the state lottery.

Corzine cast doubt on such proposals. He said the lottery already earns the state about $900 million annually and doubts a private firm can do better.

Still, Corzine wouldn't place a firm deadline on when lawmakers must approve a debt-cutting plan.

"We need to continue the dialogue," Corzine said.

He said would still sign the state budget, which must be adopted by July 1, if a debt-cutting plan isn't approved by then. State government closed for a week in 2006 when a budget wasn't approved by the July 1 state constitutional deadline amid a dispute over tax increase.