New Jersey Vote Sends Antitax Message

CAN New Jersey's new governor, Christine Todd Whitman, pull it off? Can she ever fulfill her campaign pledge to cut taxes by 30 percent over the next three years?

The new governor, who scored a stunning upset to become New Jersey's first female chief executive, will have her hands full when she takes office in January. She will be buoyed by a surplus of $400 million in the treasury. However, state economists expect the new budget, which begins in July 1994, to have a deficit of $600 million to $1.2 billion, depending on the economic condition of the state.

This large budget gap may make Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature in Trenton think twice about tax relief.

``I think, quite frankly, the Republican leadership in the Senate is more responsible and will probably turn it down,'' says state Sen. Ray Lesniak, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic Party.

In addition, Mrs. Whitman will have to find ways to come up with about $450 million for urban schools since a court has ordered the state to equalize per-student spending in the state's public schools.

But all that is in the future. For now, political analysts continue to sort the election outcome for clues about what voters in New Jersey, and across the nation, are thinking.

Mrs. Whitman won by less than 24,000 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast. Despite the narrow margin of victory, the election sent a clear message: State residents are not willing to forgive Democratic incumbent James Florio for raising taxes by $2.8 billion in the first year of his administration.

``The message is that making difficult decisions and being honest with the electorate has its rewards but it is not without its dangers,'' says Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, a friend of Mr. Florio.

Other governors in recession-weakened states, such as Mario Cuomo (D) of New York and Pete Wilson (R) of California, are certain to pay close attention to the New Jersey result. ``They are asking, `Can a recession governor make tough fiscal decisions and win reelection?' '' says Henry Raimondo, a professor of public policy at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

The White House also kept a close eye on the race. The administration invested considerable political capital in Florio's campaign, with both the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigning on behalf of the Democrat. In addition, Mr. Clinton's campaign strategist, James Carville, masterminded Florio's campaign.

Democrats in Washington were interested not only in whether a political leader could win reelection after raising taxes but also in whether it pays to challenge the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other opponents of gun control.

Congress is now debating the Brady bill, a measure backed by Clinton that would create a five-day waiting period to buy handguns. In New Jersey, Florio had signed a law banning the sale of assault weapons. During the campaign, he attacked Whitman as a supporter of the NRA and generally ran against the ``gun lobby.''

``Jim Florio's stand against the gun lobby will be watched closely in Washington,'' said Representative Torricelli at Florio's campaign party here.

However, it is the tax issue that will have politicians talking the most. Mrs. Whitman adopted an economic plan put together by Lawrence Kudlow, an economist who worked in the Reagan White House and is now at Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc. The plan relies on tax cuts to achieve economic growth.

In pre-election polls, residents of the state had their doubts about the proposal. ``People simply did not believe it, they believe politicians raise their taxes not lower them,'' says Cliff Zukin, a professor of political science at the Eagleton Institute.

Any tax cuts would have to be accompanied by significant spending cuts. Florio has already taken a knife to state spending, slicing 10,000 jobs. Mr. Lesniak says the outgoing Democrats will offer suggestions to Whitman on new efficiencies.

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