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Christie’s State of the State Address Sounds More Like State-of-the-Stump Speech

Governor’s national ambitions fairly obvious in an address that was long on self-congratulation but short on solutions to New Jersey’s pressing problems

Credit: Amanda Brown

Gov. Chris Christie delivered a State of the State address yesterday that seemed more pitched to a national audience than to the problems New Jersey faces -- a pension deficit exacerbated by insufficient state contributions, anemic job growth, no money to fix decrepit bridges, a casino industry in free fall, and homeowners still struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

As he prepares to gear up his expected exploratory campaign for president, Christie offered an impassioned account of the progress New Jersey has made in the five years since he was elected, but left out concrete proposals for addressing the state’s current challenges.

Christie, who hasn’t held a Statehouse press conference in four months, was so focused on the speech’s reception in Washington and around the country that he even held an off-the-record talk for national media outlets before the address, excluding the state press. He invited CNN, ABC, NBC, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times to the hour-long talk and question-and-answer session, but didn’t let any local media outlets know about the event.

In past State of the States, Christie has announced spending cuts in response to budget shortfalls or apologized for mistakes. In this year’s speech, however, he offered little in the way of future plans and put a positive spin on almost every issue he mentioned, pointing out that unemployment is down compared with when he took office five years ago, and that the state just made its largest pension contribution ever and had its biggest education budget. But he stopped short of mentioning that he hadn’t met the pension obligation that he himself agreed to and that the state must find a new way to fix the crisis if it is to get out from under ever-rising pension debt. He also touted balancing the state budget every year since taking office, even though he is required to do so by law.

The governor spent a large part of his speech citing accomplishments, which he said included holding down spending, capping property taxes under 2 percent, and boosting pension payments. He also said he cut business taxes by $2.3 billion and streamlined business-tax incentive programs; signed a teacher tenure reform bill and encouraged the creation of charter and urban “renaissance” schools; established a mandatory statewide drug court; and promoted addiction treatment and approved measures to prevent overdose deaths. He also talked of renewing New Jersey’s urban communities, particularly Camden.

But in spinning a narrative about a steadily improving New Jersey, Christie didn’t tell the whole story.

He didn’t mention, for example, that economically New Jersey suffers in comparison with neighboring states, having recovered just 51 percent of the jobs lost in the recession, compared with 194 percent in New York, 94 percent in Pennsylvania, and 123 percent nationally, as New Jersey Policy Perspective was quick to point out after the speech.

“The folks in Washington don’t care about those details,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said after the speech. “They care about the impression that it leaves. And if Chris Christie can successfully sell this package of goods, then they’re fine with that.”

Christie led his speech with a list of several accomplishments, including job growth in the past year, the attraction or retention of corporate employers, bail-system reform, and the tax cap. He noted the unemployment rate has dropped to 6.4 percent from 9.7 percent when he first took office, and he recalled a projected $11 billion budget deficit the state faced at the time, just two years after the beginning of the economic crisis.

“Despite so much evidence of an improving New Jersey, it has become fashionable in some quarters to run down our state,” he said. “I get it: that’s politics. But let’s be clear. Our growth in this past year has been part of a trend. A trend that began five years ago. It is easy to forget where we were and how far we have come.”

He reminded his national audience of his anti-tax bona fides, saying he has vetoed four income tax increases and will veto any new ones, though he did not rule out an increase in the gas tax or other fees, as has been proposed to save the Transportation Trust Fund. He also called for tax cuts to retain businesses and create jobs, saying that Mercedes Benz had just decided to move its offices from New Jersey to Georgia because it was cheaper to operate there.

His call for lower taxes drew a tepid response from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and other Democrats, who said after the speech that they would like to lower taxes but the state cannot afford to do so under current budgetary conditions.

The governor did propose a few small initiatives. One would create a single hotline that people battling addiction could call to get connected to drug treatment, simplifying the recovery process. The other would expand nonprofit one-stop assistance centers for ex-offenders with addictions to six cities -- Newark, Paterson, Atlantic City, Toms River, Trenton, and Jersey City.

He also touched on the state’s pension problems, blaming them on “poor decisions by governors and legislatures of both parties, over decades,” noting that a commission of experts he appointed to examine pension and health benefits issues will issue recommendations for changes.

But the lack of any larger proposals, or any specific plans to address the growing pension deficit or new funding for the cash-starved Transportation Trust Fund, drew a sour response from legislative Democrats.

“It was a State of the State about nothing,” Sweeney said afterward . “It is disappointing not to have a future [vision]. We’ve recapped the past, and some successes and some failures. Claiming success with the pension system when you fail to live up to your commitment of funding is extremely disappointing.”

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) said it made no sense for Christie to tout the 2011 agreement on pension reform, which had been projected to save the state $120 billion.

“You can’t use that number if you don’t make the payments. You have to make the payments and stay with it to be able to reach, over three decades, $120 billion. So that’s a just sound bite. It sounds good, but when you look at it, it’s not there. It’s not real,” Prieto said.

Christie briefly mentioned tenure reform and education reform efforts in Newark and Camden before launching into a celebration of the state’s mandating of drug treatment rather than prison for nonviolent offenders, a favorite issue he has adopted in recent years. He used religiously tinged language that echoed the language of the pro-life movement, saying “every life is an individual gift from God and no life is disposable.”

In a lengthy, abstract conclusion, Christie -- who has been traveling around the country for the past year as head of the Republican Governors’ Association -- began to sound even more like a national candidate, setting out the notion of a national malaise and suggesting he knows how to bring about an “American renewal,” ending with a summary of recent crime reductions, school reform, and new development in Camden as an example of his successful government in action.

“We are a nation beset by anxiety. It is understandable. Economic growth is low by post-war recovery standards. America’s leadership in the world is called into question because of a pattern of indecision and inconsistency,” he said.

“I saw it on the streets of Chicago and felt it in the suburbs of Maryland. I heard it from farmers in Kansas and from teachers in Colorado. I felt it from veterans in Maine and from workers in Arkansas. But the wisest words came from an 82-year-old woman in Florida. She grabbed my hand and asked me a simple but powerful question: ‘What’s happened to our country? We used to control events. Now events control us,’” Christie said.

“I believe in a New Jersey renewal which can help lead to an American renewal both in every individual home and in homes around the world,” he said. “I pray today that you will join me in that renewal as so many of you in this chamber and in this state have done before over the last five years.”

“There is no better example of what we can achieve if we put aside party and pettiness than the results we are seeing in Camden, a city devoid of hope five years ago,” he said.

Christie said the city has achieved a turnaround thanks to the work of its Democratic Mayor Dana Redd, an ally who he pointed out in the audience along with new superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and new county police chief Scott Thomson. He also cited a county government that acted “boldly” and his own request for support for a new vision for Camden.

The city has seen $600 million in private investment in the past year, thanks to passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, and has a new county police force that fields 400 officers at the same cost as the old 260-member force, he said. Murders are down 51 percent and violent crime overall is down 22 percent.

“Hope and optimism are up, fear of failure is down,” he said. “No one could have believed it was possible five years ago. Today, it is happening because we put action and results ahead of politics, partisanship and a shared failed history.”

The conclusion “was interesting, because there’s a unique set of circumstances in Camden,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “I’m not sure it can be easily duplicated, but it could possibly in the future. And Republicans are very clearly not the party of the inner cities, so I’m not sure he was exactly appealing to them. It was less about Camden than about, ‘Look how bipartisanship works.’”

In addition to not substantively addressing pension and transportation fund issues, Christie did not mention Atlantic City, which is waiting on a tax rescue plan being considered in the Legislature, or the continuing recovery from Hurricane Sandy, the entire topic of his State of the State speech two years ago. And while he touted the 2 percent cap on local property taxes approved in 2010, he did not acknowledge that overall tax payments have risen substantially for many residents because of exceptions to the cap.

“In today's speech, the governor missed the opportunity to demonstrate a genuine interest in compromise, cooperation or contrition, and he showed little compassion for the families struggling in the poor economic environment that his policies continue to foster,” state Democratic committee chairman John Currie said in an email.

“The Christie record is one of neglecting Sandy survivors, shorting pensioners $2.4 billion, irresponsibly borrowing from the Transportation Trust Fund, and boosting property tax burdens, to name just a few of the Christie administration's numerous policy failures,” the email said.

At the same time, the speech drew praise from Republicans and business groups. New Jersey Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Bracken applauded the governor’s “realistic assessment of the state's job and economic growth during his years in office,” and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association suggested that tax cuts begin with the elimination of the estate or inheritance taxes.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), a Christie ally and a potential gubernatorial candidate, said he agreed with the focus on lowering costs for businesses.

“This is a really smart governor,” Bramnick said. “He makes it clear: you either get competitive with other states, or you lose businesses.”

As for the governor’s presidential aspirations, Bramnick said, “I would hope he would run. He would be a pretty exciting candidate. You won’t be bored watching a debate -- no one will change the channel when Chris Christie is speaking.”

Meir Rinde is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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