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EDITORIAL: Growing shortfall is an incentive for change

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Chris Christie once called David Rosen, the budget officer for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, “the Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers.”

This was back in 2012, when Rosen testified that the governor might need a new prescription for the rose-colored glasses Christie wears when he writes his budget plan. Rosen said the state would have a budget shortfall of $1.3 billion through fiscal 2013. Christie's tirade looked especially childish in retrospect, when Rosen's numbers were accurate.

Last week, it was the same story, different characters, as projections put the shortfall at more than $800 million by the end of April. The finalized numbers weren't available at press time, but however you slice it, it's the continued drumbeat of really bad fiscal news. After all, it was just a month ago that Standard & Poors downgraded New Jersey's debt rating.

Another interesting development last week, of course, was Christie signing a labor agreement that represents the clearing of another hurdle in the obstacle course that is American Dream. If you were writing a metaphor for the budget mess, you could do worse than Xanadu — years of warning signs, unfulfilled promise and costly mistakes, all wrapped up in an ugly technicolor package.

The project was awarded a tax break of almost $400 million last year from the Economic Development Authority, and public bonds of hundreds of millions of dollars in order to finance it. One has to wonder whether resources could have been better allocated — not only the money it will get back from the sales and tax revenue it generates once it's open, but the time this project took away from high-end people on Christie's team, including Jon Hanson, the wizard of getting a deal done. And while he solved this one, and got Revel moving, the costs have been high — and in Revel's case, the fruits wilted.

The damage is done, and it is serious. There will likely be cuts, likely to programs business owners care deeply about. Going forward, this needs to be a cautionary tale for government leaders. Incentive money and tax breaks can be great things to help smaller companies locate in larger spaces, or attract big corporations and the high-paying jobs they bring. But dumping it on mall and casino projects, with the bevy of low-wage, low-skill jobs they create, isn't the kind of bet the state can afford when finances are so dire.

When it comes to incentive money, let's hope the future course looks more like Celgene — rightfully touted by Christie as a success story — and less like Xanadu.

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