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No Common Ground for Christie and Buono on Social Issues, Policies

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This is the seventh in a series of articles exploring the critical policy challenges that the next governor and Legislature will face, as well as their positions on these issues.

On issues as diverse as abortion, same-sex marriage, and gun control, the differences between Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic challenger Sen. Barbara Buono could not be clearer.

That is, if anyone could find Christie’s positions.

Buono’s website has a section on issues that includes several position papers. Christie’s site, however, does not. The governor's campaign site only contains brief biographies of Christie and Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno; a description of seven accomplishments during his current term; contribution, contact and volunteer forms; a video archive and news releases, most of which are about ads and endorsements. This is quite different from his 2009 campaign website, which had the same Internet address and a full section on issues.

“The Governor’s positions on these issues are public and well documented during his time as Governor,” said Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the Christie campaign.

Some of Christie’s positions are well-known, but they are not easy to find and are not always easy to characterize.

Last year, during a press conference, Christie said he was committed to “strictly enforcing” the state’s gun laws, calling them “some of the most aggressive in the country.”

Earlier this year, Christie signed into law 10 bills passed by the Legislature designed to toughen state laws, including upgrading the penalty for unlawfully transferring a firearm to a minor, upgrading the penalty for unlawful possession of a firearm to a first-degree offense, and requiring the submission of mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

But he conditionally vetoed -- which in this legislative climate essentially is a death knell -- the most stringent of the bills, including one (S-2723) that would overhaul the state’s permitting process and put in place a system of electronic instant background checks.

In his veto message on the background checks, Christie lamented that lawmakers did not act on his proposed “common-sense policies,” following the mass shooting of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but instead passed 15 bills aimed solely at gun control. In his veto message, Christie wrote that the digital cards “offer a reasonable modernization of our State’s gun purchase system,” but the technology to implement it does not currently exist.

Buono, who voted for that bill, supports a national instant background check for all sales or license transfers of handguns, rifles, or shotguns with few exceptions, such as for family members, law enforcement, and licensed collectors. Private gun sales provide a loophole for getting around background checks and she said she would close that, while she said Christie “has refused to even acknowledge there is a private sale loophole.”

She also criticized the governor for vetoing a bill (A-3659) that would have banned .50 caliber rifles,

In his absolute veto of that measure, Christie wrote that New Jersey already has the second-strictest gun laws in the nation and the bill would have gone too far, criminalizing the ownership of a whole class of firearms that include some currently used by competitive marksmen.

“The wide scope of this total ban, therefore, will not further public safety, but only interfere with lawful recreational pastimes,” he wrote.

Christie expanded on that veto when he was asked during the second gubernatorial debate last month why he chose an absolute veto, rather than a conditional veto.

“I had an agreement with leaders in the Legislature what that ban would look like. They decided for political reasons to make the ban more broad. They need to understand if they break a deal with me, then there are going to be ramifications for that,” Christie said, adding he would have supported a ban on the Barrett 50 caliber long-range rifle. “They didn’t keep their word on this; they decided to go too far and I vetoed the bill.”

Buono, however, said Christie had a different motivation for that veto.

“He’s sacrificing the safety of our children by vetoing commonsense gun laws just to cater to the Republican right and the NRA (National Rifle Association) because they play big in Republican presidential primaries,” she said.

His actions won Christie praise from the NRA’s New Jersey affiliate, the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs.

"After seven months of intense battle over misguided legislation that won't stop another crime or prevent another tragedy, we are grateful that Gov. Christie has finally ended the discussion on the worst of the bills by tossing them onto the scrap heap where they belong," said ANJRPC Executive Director Scott Bach in a statement posted on the group’s website. "These vetoes put gun-banning politicians on notice that exploiting tragedy to advance an agenda against legal gun owners, instead of punishing violent criminals, will not be entertained."

Buono had voted for that bill and also said she would reduce the maximum capacity of ammunition magazines from 15 to 10 bullets. Citing Sandy Hook and other recent mass shootings in Tucson, AZ, and Aurora, CO, Buono said, “If these magazines had been smaller, lives could have been saved.”

She also supports requiring that all sales of ammunition be face to face, as all gun sales are required to be. That would make it illegal to use the mail, Internet or telephone to conduct ammunition sales. That provision was part of S-2723, which Christie vetoed.

Buono’s full position paper on gun violence is posted online.

Had the state Supreme Court not declined to stay a lower court ruling that ordered same-sex marriages to begin last Monday, and indicated it would likely uphold that ruling early next year, the issue might be more important in this campaign.

Still, some argue, there are some fine points to work out regarding same sex marriage in the state. Advocates would prefer to see it codified, rather than have the authority for allowing the unions rest with a Superior Court decision.

The two major candidates’ positions on the issue could not be clearer: Buono supports same-sex marriages and Christie does not. The governor conditionally vetoed a bill that would have written gay marriage into state law, saying he wanted the issue put up as a question before voters. His administration tried to stop the courts from ordering that same sex unions occur, although he did drop his administration’s appeal when the Supreme Court indicated he would likely lose.

During the second debate, Christie stated his personal beliefs about marriage would not change even if one of his children told him he was gay and wanted to marry his partner.

Stating he would first hug his child and express his love for the child, Christie said, “I would also tell them that dad believes that marriage is between one man and one woman. My children understand there are going to be differences of opinion in our house and in houses all across the state of New Jersey. I support the 2,000-year old definition. They would understand that their father loves them.”

“This is a human rights issue,” Buono said. “This governor equates it with guns and taxes.”

Christie last August signed a ban on gay conversion therapy, stating he had mixed feelings about it but that he believed it “can pose critical health risks” for children. Buono was a co-sponsor of the bill.

Christie and Buono are also diametrically opposed on the issue of abortion. Buono is pro-choice. Christie has said in interviews and on his 2009 campaign site that he was pro-choice until he heard the heartbeat of his daughter when his wife was 13 weeks pregnant. He has said he is now pro-life, but supports exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. On his 2009 campaign site, though, he issued a somewhat stronger pro-life statement, saying, “We must work to reduce abortions in New Jersey through laws such as parental notification, a 24-hour waiting period and a ban on partial birth abortion.”

Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office and endorsed Buono, blasted Christie’s anti-choice positions, saying his “record is right wing and indefensible.”

New Jersey Right to Life has endorsed Christie, praising him for a number of recent actions, including his vetoes of bills that would have provided Medicaid coverage for family-planning services to those whose incomes are less than twice the federal poverty level (A-4171) and restored the $7.5 million for family planning services grants the governor had cut previously from the budget (S-2825). NJ Right to Life said those bills would have provided “a huge financial boondoggle to the nation’s largest abortion provider . . . Planned Parenthood.”

Christie has increased the reimbursement to Federally Qualified Health Centers to an all-time high, according to Roberts, and the number of women served at the centers has risen by nearly half since 2008.

Buono has used Christie’s position on abortion to bolster her argument that she is better on women’s issues than the governor. Her position paper on these issues is available online.

As more proof of this, she cites Christie’s veto of a bill (A-2649) that sought to require state contractors to give the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development information about the gender, race, job, and compensation for every employee working on the contract. Buono voted for the bill.

In his veto message, Christie said the bill would “do nothing to tangibly improve pay disparity” but would instead “burden countless employers with onerous reporting requirements, thereby driving up the cost of public contracts, which are ultimately shouldered by the taxpayer.”

Christie also conditionally vetoed a bill (A-2650) that would have brought the state into line with the pay discrimination protections in the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 because, unlike the federal law, the state law would have no statute of limitations. He suggested the Assembly bill be changed to mirror the federal law, which he supports. Lawmakers did not concur.

They did support his conditional veto of a bill (A-2648) extending the protections of the whistleblower law to protect from retaliation any employee who discloses pay information based on a reasonable belief that a discriminatory pay practice is occurring. And Christie outright signed a fourth, related bill (A-2647), which requires all employers advise workers of their right to be free from pay discrimination.

The New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce supported the vetoes, saying the bills were duplicative, “imposed new and onerous administrative requirements on employers and exposed them to unnecessary litigation and new penalties,” as well as possibly leading to violations of employees’ privacy.

But EMILY’s List criticized Christie’s veto of equal-pay legislation. Noting that Christie’s veto of pay transparency bill said it would have created a “senseless bureaucracy,” Marcy Stech, the group’s national press secretary, said, “What’s senseless is focusing on building a national reputation as champion of anti-women policies for himself at the expense of the New Jersey women and working families losing billions each year because of the wage gap.”

Saying it is unfair that women in New Jersey earn on average only 78 percent of what men do, Buono has made equal pay for women part of her “Plan to Lift Up New Jersey’s Women.” Her support for an increase in the minimum wage is part of that and she backs the current ballot question, which would raise to $8.25 the state’s minimum wage, currently the same as the federal $7.25, and automatically increase that each year based on an increase in the cost of living.

“People on the minimum wage, they can’t make it in this state,” Buono said during the candidates’ second debate, citing New Jersey’s status as one of the most expensive states in the nation to live. “They are on food stamps, they are living in public housing. So many of them have two jobs.”

NOW-NJ has endorsed Buono, calling her “a tireless champion for women’s rights.” In the same endorsement, Jennifer Armiger, chair of NOW-NJ’s Political Action Committee, rejected Christie by saying he “waged a relentless war against women by cutting funds for basic family planning and health services and rejecting an increase in the minimum wage.”

Christie conditionally vetoed a bill (A-2612) that Buono had cosponsored that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 this year and adjusted the rate annually. He suggested -- and the Legislature rejected -- an immediate increase of 25 cents, with another 75 cents phased in over the second and third years.

“I’m for a minimum wage increase, but one that was done responsibly and phased in over time,” he said during that second debate, adding that passage of the ballot question will force employers to lay off thousands of workers. “I’m opposed to people getting automatic raises every year regardless of the health of the business they work for or regardless of their performance.”

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association agrees.

“Tying increases in the minimum wage to increases in the cost of living disregards the underlying economic conditions employers face,” wrote Stefanie Riehl, assistant vice president of employment and labor policy, in the September issue of New Jersey Business magazine. “Minimum wage employees would receive increases just about every year, regardless of whether employers can afford them. This will force businesses to reduce hours, move people to part-time, or eliminate jobs altogether. Additionally, higher payrolls will force employers to charge higher prices, which will hurt people who can least afford them.”

New Jersey’s high cost of living means housing also is expensive and, in this area, neither candidate has said much publicly about helping low- and moderate-income residents be able to afford to live in the state.

“Gov. Christie has made multiple attempts to follow through on his campaign promise to remake the system into a sensible, predictable system that local governments can use to reasonably meet their affordable housing obligations,” Roberts wrote in an email.

“Entrenched Trenton special interests (particularly in the Assembly) and an activist Supreme Court has refused to allow these reforms to move forward at nearly every step,” he added.

Buono also voted for a bill (S-1) in 2010 and amended in early 2011 that would have abolished COAH and set up very different criteria for determining how much affordable housing communities would need to provide. Christie conditionally vetoed it, writing that the bill “requires that at least 10 percent of the total housing units in most municipalities be dedicated as affordable housing, creating obligations for many municipalities throughout the state well in excess of what is required under the current failed COAH system.”

"Senator Buono believes it is time to move past COAH, but in a way that follows the law,” said Sam Salustro, a spokesman for the Buono campaign. “The Legislature presented Governor Christie with a bill that would disband COAH but also took serious steps to make sure we meet our obligation to provide families in all communities with affordable homes. Christie vetoed the bill and tried to steal funds from towns to balance his irresponsible budgets, and has done nothing to create more affordable homes in New Jersey. That's not a solution.”

Christie’s 2013 budget would have taken as much as $164 million in unspent monies from municipal affordable housing trust funds. Roberts said budget language proposed by Christie would “limit usage of these funds to uses that support the provision of housing for households and individuals with low and moderate incomes.” But it would have freed up other state funds that then would have been used to balance the budget. The courts delayed the taking of that money, although that process was to have begun within the past several months. A COAH spokeswoman did not respond to a request for information about the status of the funds.

Roberts said Christie’s budget provides funding for “a wide array of housing assistance programs.”

“He has delayed and blocked affordable housing in this state,” said Buono during the second debate. “Not only did he fail to offer a remedy for affordable housing, but he thwarted it by trying to take money from municipalities.”

For her part, Buono has voted for, and once cosponsored, legislation seeking to have the state purchase foreclosed properties and turn them into affordable housing. Lawmakers have passed one form of this bill or another three times, the most recent was S-2716, and Christie has vetoed it each time. In one of those veto messages, Christie said he wanted to leave it up to the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency to decide how to best handle the problem of home foreclosures. According to RealtyTrac, New Jersey’s foreclosure rate of 16 percent is among the highest in the nation.

“Senator Buono will hold towns accountable to creating affordable-living options in their communities, and pursue commonsense measures like turning foreclosed properties into affordable homes," Salustro said.

Berger said that as majority leader, Buono tried to save the $40 million in Mortgage Stabilization Relief funds earmarked to help home owners facing foreclosure. Christie took the money to help balance the budget in February 2010 when he declared a “state of fiscal emergency” shortly after taking office.

She said the lack of information on housing proposals during this campaign may make it harder for the average voter to judge the candidates, but “It’s important for people worried about those issues to know where they stand.”

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