April 21, 2021

PCDO Panelists Say It’s Time For Investment in Public Goods, Services

By Donald Gilpin

“Investment vs. Austerity: Government Response to Economic Downturns” was the issue on the table Sunday night, April 18, at a Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) Zoom meeting, but the discussion quickly focused not on whether to spend the money, but how to spend the money effectively to help people most in need of government services.

With the federal government making investments in public goods and services on a scale not seen in decades, the panelists — Sheila Reynertson, New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) senior policy analyst; Deborah Cornavaca, Gov. Phil Murphy’s deputy chief of staff; and Nedia Morsy, organizing director at Make the Road New Jersey — seemed to join forces in exploring ways to combat the unequal impact of the pandemic and to break down barriers and put prosperity within everyone’s reach.

Acknowledging the meeting’s bias towards the need for New Jersey to invest its way out of the crisis rather than go the route of austerity, Cornavaca emphasized, “But how we do it is the really important piece to drill down on. How we do it to undo systemic racism, how we do it to address systemic sexism, and to lift up voices that have been marginalized, to make sure that everybody gets a piece of a growing pie.  These are the challenges that have been put in front of us, and I guarantee we stand a better chance of success with all of your involvement.”

Reynertson agreed, citing “growing evidence that when you invest rather than cut the social and physical infrastructures that are necessary to protect the health and economic well-being of our people and our communities, you have a better overall economic recovery.”

Emphasizing inequities that must be addressed, Morsy, leader of a grassroots organization with offices in Elizabeth, Passaic, and Perth Amboy, stated, “Investment is a question of racial justice, economic opportunity, and the community’s survival, Black and brown people’s survival.” 

Morsy, who supervises Make the Road’s Youth Power Project and Student Success Center and has been named one of Insider NJ’s top millennial leaders of 2018 and 2019, called for “investing in bold and transformative ways to prevent the worst racial and economic inequality crisis of our century.”

Reynertson pointed out the value of investments in local capital improvements and infrastructure projects. “You put people to work,” she said. “They benefit. The suppliers benefit. The users benefit. The community benefits. That’s the recipe for growing a local economy. Get money into the pipeline and it multiplies across the community — a win-win for everybody.”

Emphasizing the importance of long-term planning and the engagement of the whole community in planning and follow-through, Cornavaca urged a focus not just on relief and recovery but also on “reimagination.” “We want to support relief,” she said, sharing her perspectives from the governor’s office. “And we want to make sure we put ourselves on a long-term sustainable path to recovery.” 

She described this point in time as “an opportunity to reimagine.” “Community voices have to be part of reimagining what it will be like five to ten years from now. How do we get to a better place using the investment money that we have? If we do that we stand a great chance to bring a new kind of equity and justice to our communities.”

Cornavaca highlighted schools, public libraries, and outdoor spaces like public parks as important targets of investment that would pay off richly in benefits to people and communities. “These are the spaces where people can really benefit,” she said.

In responding to a PCDO question about the advisability of raising the 2 percent cap on property taxes, Cornavaca was noncommittal, noting that the governor had not taken a position on that question, but she returned to her recurring theme of community engagement and inclusion in the decision-making processes.

“If we were to raise taxes, it would have to be done within a framework of deep community collaboration and input so that those investments are truly reflective of what the community wants and needs and it’s done with equity and in a way that lifts everybody up. We have to do it in a way that those dollars come back to the community and in a way that they are decided on collectively.”

Cornavaca urged the Zoom audience to “dream big, but in prioritizing be realistic” and to make sure to take the time to build consensus and to “ensure that there’s a long-term community commitment to those decisions.” She noted that Princeton is likely to be a leading example in the state. “The rest of the state is going to be looking at what you’re doing as a role model and example of what we all could be doing writ large,” she said.

In responding to a PCDO question about helping to advance progressive initiatives, Morsy called for a redirecting of government funds as one of the things young people have been fighting for. She emphasized the need to invest in resources for Black and brown communities and in college-access programming, after-school programming, school counselors, and mental health resources. “That’s what we need to invest in, not more police or more security or metal detectors,” she said. “The segregation and inequality of most school districts is intense. 

In closing, Reynertson pointed out how these discussions about using stimulus money to advance the cause of equity in the state “reinforce everything that we’ve been fighting for at NJPP for years.” She added, “We’ve recognized that it’s OK to be unapologetically bold about wanting people to have lives of dignity and prosperity and not just get by but get ahead.”

In her final remarks, Cornavaca described Princeton as “a community of deeply engaged people who want to serve and contribute to the community and to the state at large.”  She continued, “I would ask you to continue to lead in that and bring additional people along to become more involved, because that’s the way we will succeed.”

There were about 45 participants involved in Sunday’s Zoom meeting, which was moderated by PCDO President Afsheen Shamsi, with Programming Committee Chair Tim Quinn moderating the follow-up Q&A session.