-- Lawmakers have already approved New Jersey's largest rummage sale in its history.
Within months, $200 million worth of state-owned parking lots, vacant land, a hospital and even a prison will be on the auction block.
But acting Gov. Richard J. Codey (D) and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jon S. Corzine may want to sell even more.
In an effort to bail out the state's near-bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund, Codey has his advisers developing plans to lease the iconic New Jersey Turnpike, which would offer a buyer hundreds of millions of dollars in toll revenue annually. Corzine's idea would include selling to private companies the turnpike rest stops and land next to train stations.
States across the country, saddled with the same budget deficits and high debt that confront New Jersey, are exploring similar plans to fund government projects and to spare beleaguered taxpayers.
Although states routinely sell off a few million dollars' worth of surplus land and vehicles each year, the country's first major asset sale took place in January, when Chicago leased its 7.8-mile Chicago Skyway toll road to a Spanish-Australian company for $1.83 billion.
For government officials in New Jersey, New York, Indiana and Delaware, the sale brought new meaning to the old saying "I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you."
"Chicago put the road out there with the thought they'd see what they could get, and they were floored by the answer -- as clearly so was every other government looking for some extra money," said Neil Gray, director of governmental affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. "If you applied that math to the turnpike or other longer toll roads, you could generate an amazing number. But it's wise to look at these arrangements with a healthy degree of skepticism."
Codey first contemplated privatizing the 148-mile turnpike, which is used by 247 million motorists a year, as an option for balancing the state's $28 billion budget. After the sale of $200 million in smaller assets helped fill the spending gap, Codey recycled the idea of leasing the turnpike -- or the Garden State Parkway -- as a way to save the Transportation Trust Fund, which was created as a steady source of funding for transportation projects and will run out of money next July. A lease could come instead of or in addition to raising the state's 14.5-cent gas tax, said Codey spokeswoman Kelley Heck.
Delaware, meanwhile, is preparing proposals for leasing its Interstate 95 toll road, Route 1, or the newer Route 301. Indiana Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R) has floated the idea of privatizing the Indiana Toll Road, while New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R), in his January budget address, flirted with selling a bridge such as the Tappan Zee.
"I think this makes a tremendous amount of sense -- it's a way for states to extract the enormous investment they've built up but at the same time retain a great deal of control," said Karen Hedlund, a Virginia-based state-transportation adviser at the law firm Nossaman Guthner. "The private sector has enormous experience with this in Europe and Asia, and the time has come for the United States."
Estimates of the New Jersey Turnpike's worth vary, but a study published in May by the libertarian Reason Foundation put the value at $19.2 billion. Others caution that this figure may be high and say that $12 billion may be a more realistic estimate.
These desperate times for state governments call for innovation, said Arturo Perez, a budget analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
"States are facing their worst fiscal crisis of the last 60 years," Perez said. "Of course, states are looking at their infrastructure and trying to figure out how to privatize or transfer it. They've come up with everything from naming rights to outright divesting of assets."