Garden State Initiative becomes N.J.’s newest think tank

Regina Egea, former chief of staff for Gov. Chris Christie, has founded Garden State Initiative, a nonpartisan think tank she said will be devoted to providing research-based answers to fiscal and economic issues.

Egea, who had a nearly three-decade career in corporate life with AT&T before stumbling into government (her description), said the time is right for a think tank such as GSI.

“There’s nobody in the space of doing New Jersey-based research on fiscal and economic matters, and really speaking to a constituency in the state that really wants to have that discourse,” she said.

GSI released its first white paper, “Connecticut’s Fiscal Crisis is a Cautionary Tale for New Jersey,” last week.

Egea understands her time in the Christie administration will make some immediately label the paper as being conservative or Republican-leaning. Her goal is to build the GSI brand so it’s recognized in a different way.

“It’s really not partisan, it’s about economic growth and, frankly, trying to raise the level of conversation about what can we do,” she said.

We caught up with Egea last week to learn more about her past and how it got her to her present.

ROI-NJ: You worked at AT&T in a variety of executive jobs for nearly three decades. How did that impact your career?

Regina Egea: I loved that firm. It was really a great way to grow up professionally. It served me well. It was an environment that really thought about the long term, not only for the business, but the people. So, I was the beneficiary of really thoughtful career development. They moved us around the whole company: sales, marketing, finance, operations, HR. You learned everything.

But it made me want to do what I’m doing now. In the ’90s, a lot of the prosperity was fueled by all of the re-engineering and restructuring that went on, the delayering and empowering the front line. I think the government got left behind. When you’re inside it, you can see that it’s inefficiently structured; it’s not the people, it’s about the jobs, it’s how the work is organized. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to take some of the principles of the private employers in the state of New Jersey and work with the government to reduce cost and improve services at the same time. It’s a false choice to say, well, if I reduce costs I have to reduce services. It’s just not true.

ROI: You talk about being ‘inside of it.’ For six years, you were. Serving as chief of staff to both Gov. Christie and state Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff. Was government work always part of your career plans?

RE: No (she says, laughing). I started on the board of education in Harding Township. And I really tripped into it. I was working full-time, but I wanted to be involved in the school. When the kids get to be about first grade, the schools really don’t want parents in the classroom anymore and all the PTO meetings were during the day. They had an opening on the board and they were soliciting candidates, so I went in and talked to them and they brought me on to finish an expiring term.

Once I got onto the board of ed, because of my background in business, I did the budgets. Then, they asked me to join the township committee and I did budgets there, and it reaffirmed my belief that it’s really all happening in Trenton.

It was really a coincidence of timing. AT&T was bought in 2005 and we all had collars, and mine ended in 2008. When Gov. Christie decided to run in 2009, I thought it would be a good use of my background rather than go to another corporate job. So, I joined the campaign as a policy adviser. Then, when he was brought into office, I became the chief of staff of the treasurer in 2010.

I guess it was a little different. More men have done that, going from business into government, so it didn’t seem unusual to me.

ROI: You started in the treasurer’s office. What were the biggest takeaways from that experience?

RE: I was involved in the pension and benefit plans the first two years. It was really hard in terms of people just intellectually understanding what the problem was and then, secondly, figuring out where you could negotiate to a settlement.

ROI: Is there a solution?

RE: I’m a big supporter of the pension and benefit report that came out in 2015, not just because I was there. It’s really quite straightforward, and I believe that it’s much more the political structure that’s in the way than the intellectual. There’s three parts: One is preserve everything that’s been earned by an employee. You don’t take anything away. Second, go to a 401(k) style and pay that with current expenses. And then benchmark health benefits to the market and use those savings to secure the long-term liability of what has been earned by the employee.

(READ MORE from ROI-NJ on Garden State Initiative and its first report.)

You can afford a 401(k) style and you can afford benchmark benefits for both active employees as well as retirees in the insurance market. There’s a billion and a half of savings. And it also helps our bond ratings and the ongoing budgetary challenges that every state has. That’s the part that always disappointed me: People wouldn’t accept (that), if you can benchmark health care, you can secure the long term. You have to take the objection of going to a 401(k): ‘I was promised’ or ‘I’ve always had a defined benefit.’ If you can’t get out of that mindset, then you can’t solve the problem. That is what I think is mostly in the way of solving the problem today.

ROI: Years later, you’re still trying to help solve the problem. GSI teamed with Stephen D. Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, to produce its first white paper. It details Connecticut’s attempt to solve its pension problem — and how its efforts failed. What can New Jersey learn?

RE: I think Connecticut’s a great laboratory for us. They are trying to tax their way to prosperity. The very end of the piece talks about escalating the burden of taxes to pay for value that isn’t a current value. It’s something that has been promised in the past that doesn’t create current value. If you’re going to generate tax, it’s got to create current value. I’m disappointed in the gubernatorial candidates. I don’t think either of one them (is) really sufficiently addressing the underlying cost problems.

ROI: Did you know you wanted to start a think tank when you left the administration in April 2016?

RE: Not really. I certainly took the summer off. That was the advice: Get away from all of it. Because I really didn’t take a break when I left corporate. Around the fall of last year, I really started to pitch the idea. Frankly, there’s a market opportunity. There’s nobody in the space of doing New Jersey-based research on fiscal and economic matters and really speaking to a constituency in the state that really wants to have that discourse. I hope it comes across that it’s not dogmatic. It’s really respecting the audience. You want to understand things and ask questions and really be more curious about what the choices are so you can form an opinion and not be told what your opinion is.

ROI: How have you built GSI?

RE: I’ve been fundraising since the spring. The Manhattan Institute is a great organization. I think they have certain points of view, but I think it’s indisputable that they have the gold standard of quality research. That’s always a challenge when you’re forming a think tank: Where do you get the quality resources to do the work? They were willing to partner up and made some of their scholars available to do the work under the brand: GSI. That’s a huge asset for me.

ROI: Your six years in the Christie administration will make most feel you are a conservative or Republican-leaning think tank. How do you overcome that?

RE: We’re not trying to be labeled either way. We’re only going to talk about fiscal and economic policy. I think that will help. We’re not going to get into sanctuary cities or the environment, things that would drag you in one direction or another. And I think not being dogmatic is helpful, too.

I have to build that brand. That’s the GSI brand. If it were Regina Egea Co., that would be different. It’s Garden State Initiative, and I hope as we build the brand in both terms of our work product, this release, and everything we say in public, it’s really not partisan. It’s about economic growth and, frankly, trying to raise the level of conversation about what can we do.

We have another piece coming on tax policy. What we’re trying to work on is economic growth. What’s the best tax policy on economic growth? If you can stay in the space and work with people who want to work honestly in that space, it’s doable. So far, I’ve had good response from both sides.

ROI: Where do you go from here?

RE: I have a four-year business plan and, certainly, the idea is to grow each year for the next four years. But in the two-year timeframe to establish the brand, it’s really the same model, buying expertise institutes such as Manhattan and others, and then bringing on quality analysts. But to get quality, you have to be able to afford them.

ROI: It’s always about money? How is the fundraising going — and where do you get your support?

RE: It’s on plan. All of my funding comes from private individuals and foundations.

I’m not looking for money from the corporate side. I don’t want to be viewed as an advocacy group for business interests. I do advocate for the private employers in the state. They have a general interest in wanting to help restructure the budget.

I think there is a market appetite for genuine policy discussions, bringing both sides to it. I think that’s an advantage we’ll bring, being nonpartisan.