In a preview of his gubernatorial reelection strategy, Gov. Chris Christie used his State of the State speech to take a victory lap yesterday, saluting the heroism and unity forged by Hurricane Sandy, stressing his own bipartisan leadership, and touting his accomplishments in leading an economic “turnaround” from the “old, dark days” of Democratic rule.
Frustrated Democratic leaders, including both declared and potential gubernatorial candidates, countered that Christie was glossing over New Jersey’s anemic economic growth, high unemployment rate, and a score of contentious issues from property taxes and gun control to Medicaid expansion, gay marriage, and climate change.
But with Christie holding a daunting 33-to-46 point lead over likely Democratic opponents in the latest Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, the ebullient governor feels he can virtually ignore those issues, as he did for the most part in yesterday’s speech, said Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University political scientist and pollster.
“Christie has the same Teflon coating that Ronald Reagan had,” Murray added, noting that his polls show that voters don’t seem to blame Christie for the state’s high unemployment or high property taxes.
“The takeaway from the speech is that Christie is saying ‘I don’t have to do anything else to win reelection. Sandy recovery is what I’ll be spending my time on, it’s going to take years to recover fully, and you want me around to oversee the recovery,’” Murray said.
Indeed, Statehouse veterans noted that Christie’s speech was the first State of the State in memory that did not include a single new policy initiative or specific goal for the upcoming year. That's in sharp contrast to Christie’s policy-laden address a year ago, which included a proposed 10 percent across-the-board state income tax cut, a new correctional approach for drug offenders, and a renewal of his call for tenure reform and merit pay in public schools.
Christie indicated to reporters over the weekend that he would use the speech to renew his call for an immediate tax cut, but he made no reference to either the tax cut or the $705 million shortfall in this year’s budget identified by the Office of Legislative Services, other than to assert that “Sandy took a toll on New Jersey’s economy.”
Instead, Christie used the speech to emphasize his administration’s accomplishments in helping the state dig out from the devastations caused by “the worst storm to hit New Jersey in 100 years” and to tamp down expectations for a quick recovery by stressing that it “will take years” for the state to fully recover.
The Republican governor reminded voters of the compassion he showed during Hurricane Sandy by recounting his tear-filled encounter with a nine-year-old girl whose house had been destroyed.
Christie repeatedly stressed the bipartisan leadership that sent his poll ratings soaring with the Democrats and independents who make up a heavy majority of New Jersey’s electorate, first when he embraced President Obama and ignored GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney when Hurricane Sandy hit eight day before the election, and again when he bitterly attacked GOP House Speaker John Boehner last week for holding up a $60 billion Sandy relief package.
While the nation “watched a dysfunctional, dispirited, and distrustful government in Washington bicker and battle not against our problems, but against each other,” Christie proclaimed that under his leadership, New Jersey became “a national model for reform and bipartisanship.”
Thanking Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) for their cooperation, Christie listed in rapid succession the series of bipartisan accomplishments he will be running for reelection on: “A real 2 percent property tax cap. Interest arbitration reform. Pension and health benefit reform. Teacher tenure reform. Higher education restructuring resulting in Rutgers now being in the top 25 in research dollars and the newest member of the Big 10. $1.3 billion in capital investment in our universities for the first time in 25 years.”
For Sweeney and Oliver, who alternately stood impassively or applauded woodenly as they stood above and behind Christie in the Assembly Chamber, yesterday’s State of the State speech was largely a string of uncomfortable moments as Christie ignored what they regard as the most important issues facing New Jersey.
“What did he say about the economy and how he’s going to fix it?” Sweeney demanded. “There wasn’t one word about it.”
Sweeney, who has said he is also considering entering the governor’s race, did not back off of his criticism of the governor for focusing virtually exclusively upon Hurricane Sandy reconstruction “The storm’s going to put everyone back to work -- that’s great,” he said sarcastically. “What’s going to happen after the storm” recovery is over," he asked.
“Rebuilding after Sandy isn’t the only pressing concern,” Oliver insisted. “New Jersey’s economy was in turmoil before the storm and remains so with a 9.6 unemployment rate and economic growth that ranked 47th in the nation. That’s why Assembly Democrats passed numerous job creation bills in December and look forward to them finally getting the governor’s attention and support."
“New Jerseyans still wait for the governor to decide on the Democratic plan to increase the minimum wage. Low-income working families need this help. Women’s healthcare funding remains cut. This must be corrected. We’ve heard nothing from Governor Christie on gun and ammunition control,” she said.
Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), who announced her candidacy for governor last month, agreed that “repairing the damage wreaked by Sandy is necessary, but it is not sufficient.”
“Before severe weather battered our state, New Jersey was already suffering from an economic storm -- millions of residents struggling under the highest unemployment rate in three decades; property taxes that have soared by as much as 20 percent; public schools that are without the resources they need to succeed; and colleges and universities that are increasingly pricing our young people out,” Buono noted, emphasizing her core campaign issues.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), a close Christie ally who lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in November, echoed the governor’s call to “put the needs of our most victimized citizens ahead of the partisan politics of the day.”
Dismissing “the near-constant sniping” of Democratic legislative leaders, Kyrillos urged “the governor’s critics to stop with the nasty, partisan posturing, leave the campaigning for the fall, and work with the governor to continue the progress” that Christie has achieved.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) shook his head at Christie’s constant calls for bipartisanship. “What Governor Christie really wants,” Sarlo said, “is for no one to criticize him” while he runs for reelection. “His [budget] numbers are so fuzzy, it’s amazing he puts them out there.”
While Christie claimed that state income tax collections were exceeding his administration’s projections prior to Hurricane Sandy, Sarlo noted that state tax collections actually were far behind the governor’s estimates -- more than $450 million short for the five months preceding the superstorm and $705 million in the hole through December.
“The hole’s not going to get smaller, it’s only going to get larger,” Sweeney added.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) said Christie should be proposing budget cuts now to make up a budget shortfall that he said could grow as large as $2 billion by the end of June, but he predicted that the governor would wait for an “April surprise” to bail out his “irresponsible revenue projections” without having to make embarrassing and potentially political painful election-year budget cuts.
Christie and Republican legislative leaders also clashed with Democrats yesterday over job growth.
Christie noted during his speech that New Jersey has regained 75,000 private sector jobs lost during the last recession. “I mention the words ‘private sector’ advisedly because we have not grown government . . . In the last three years, we have cut more than 20,000 government jobs,” Christie said proudly.
But Greenwald countered that New Jersey’s unemployment rate remains 2 percentage points above the national average, and that crime rose 3 percent in New Jersey in 2011 after municipalities were forced to cut 1,426 police officers -- a 6 percent reduction -- as a result of budget cuts forced by Christie administration policies.
Christie extolled the bravery of the state’s first responders during Hurricane Sandy, Greenwald noted, “but those are the jobs he’s cutting.”
While Christie did not renew his call for an income tax cut this year, he did take credit for two years of business tax cuts, and made it clear that tax policy would be a major issue in the upcoming campaign.
“Four years of balanced budgets,” the governor noted. “No new taxes. New tax relief to create 75,000 new private sector jobs. A far different picture from the prior eight years, which saw 115 increases in taxes and fees.” Taxes and fees, he might have added, that were voted for by virtually every potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate, from Sweeney and Buono to Greenwald and Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex).
But Democrats are eager are to join the campaign battle over taxes.
“For three years, the governor has championed income tax cuts for millionaires, while ignoring the needs of hard-pressed property taxpayers, the unemployed, and a whole generation of students being denied their ticket to chasing their dreams,” Buono said.
Greenwald said New Jersey should follow Obama’s lead in pushing through higher income taxes on the wealthy. “We should pass a millionaire’s tax that asks the wealthiest 1 percent to pay a little more so that we can provide a 20 percent property tax cut for 2.6 million households,” he said.
He invited “the kinder, gentler Chris Christie that emerged after Hurricane Sandy” to work with Democrats on a bipartisan basis to cut property taxes.
Christie made it clear yesterday, however, that he believes the new 2 percent property tax cap has solved the property tax problem. “Last year, property taxes in New Jersey grew by only 1.7 percent -- the lowest rise in two decades,” he said.
New Jersey’s property taxes are still the highest in the nation, and Murray noted that property taxes remain tied with the economy as the top concern of New Jerseyans in public opinion polls, with Hurricane Sandy coming in third.
“People don’t think Christie has solved the property tax problem, but they don’t blame him either: They give him credit for taking the bull by the horns and trying something different,” Murray said. “Democrats were going to have a hard time beating Christie before Sandy, but now it’s even harder.”
NJ Spotlight reporter Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this report.