TRENTON, N.J. – In deciding not to accept his $175,000 annual salary when he takes office next month, New Jersey Gov.-elect Jon S. Corzine continues a trend started by his predecessors who also opted for austerity in the face of budgetary concerns.
In the past 15 years, most New Jersey governors — all of them career politicians, only one wealthy — have declined their full salaries.
Other millionaire officeholders around the country, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and in his day, President John F. Kennedy, have declined their paychecks.
Corzine, a 58-year-old former Goldman Sachs CEO who is to take office Jan. 17, spent a combined $107 million of his own cash on his successful 2000 U.S. Senate campaign and this year's governor's race. Last year, Corzine's estimated net worth ranged as high as $262 million.
Said aide Andrew Pogue: "The Treasury needs it more than he does."
While refusing a full salary is popular symbolic move, some observers say it can bring unintended consequences.
"It does cause problems for successors. Then the next person feels obligated to do the same thing," said Larry Sabato, a professor and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"The salary is set because it's appropriate," he said. "A chief executive who spends $100 billion a year or more ought to be paid a reasonable salary."
Department of Treasury records indicate that New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio started the trend of taking partial pay in modern times, accepting $85,000 of the statutorily mandated $130,000 annual salary. Christine Todd Whitman followed suit, as did acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco in 2001, although by then the official salary was up to $175,000. Former Gov. James E. McGreevey accepted 90 percent of his pay, or $157,000.
Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, however, accepted his full $175,000 salary for the time he has served since McGreevey's resignation. An aide was quick to point out Codey has refused the salary for which he also is eligible as Senate president. Senators earn $49,000 a year, but extra pay for the president of that body brings the paycheck to $65,333.
Sabato said there's no reason to be sheepish about accepting full pay.
"I'll bet no one in New Jersey begrudges him that salary," Sabato said of Codey. "Public office ought to have set salaries that are sufficient for an average person to serve."
Whitman said her choice was not about peer pressure but tough budgetary times. Refusing a salary brings minimal benefit to a state budget that now totals about $28 billion and is projected to have a $6 billion deficit next year. But Whitman said the move sends an important message.
"The first year we didn't increase spending," she said. "If they were to see the chief executive suddenly taking a lot more money, it makes it a lot harder to get the rest of the stuff done."
Along with her venture-capitalist husband's salary, Whitman's income approached $4 million the year before she ran for office.
"It's a big job, and often it can cost you money," for things such as entertaining, Christmas cards and other niceties expected of the governor's office, she said. "For people who don't have a lot of outside salary, that's a real drain."
Sabato said he wondered if wealthy officeholders can really understand the worries of ordinary Americans.
"We have a Senate composed mainly of millionaires, some of them hundred-millionaires. The wealthier you are, the more removed you are from average people, whether you admit it or not.
"And the people you naturally associate with are people like you," he added. "You don't have to worry about paying the heating bill. You begin to think the major problem facing people in this country is the capital-gains tax."