Every February, the thoughts of New Jersey’s political cognoscenti turn to the state budget. For the lobbyists, consultants, and public affairs gurus who inhabit the three-story brownstones turned office space lining West State Street in Trenton, the budget -- what’s in and what’s out -- represents their continued wellbeing, a positive cash flow, and remaining a player.
Not this year.
Multiple federal investigations of allegations of ethical misbehavior or possible criminality on the part of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have cast a long and dark shadow over the political environment, dominating the daily news cycle as well as the conversations along State Street. There is talk of little else.
Christie will submit his fiscal 2016 budget to a joint legislative session next Tuesday and, while there will be immediate interest in his spending proposals, the corridor chats and gossip-swapping that normally follow the gubernatorial address will refocus quickly on the latest news reports about the investigations and what they might mean. Speculation -- never in short supply in this atmosphere -- will reach overdrive.
News accounts of an ever-widening probe by the U. S. Attorney, combined with Christie’s steadily declining poll numbers and a week of savagely critical media coverage of his trip to England, have produced an eerie disquiet that hangs over the Statehouse.
There is a palpable sense that the administration is under siege, weakened and battered by reliably sourced reports of questionable conduct on the part of Christie’s staff or those closely associated with him. It’s become the dominant narrative among the chattering class, replacing discussions of the kind of policy and political issues that are the usual fare among this group.
Christie’s standing as a viable contender for the Republican presidential nomination has suffered as well under the barrage of unfavorable news coverage, and there is speculation that additional revelations of misbehavior will put an end to whatever national ambitions he may hold.
While the next shoe will drop at some point, there is considerable anxiety that when it falls it will more closely resemble the entire inventory of the Payless Shoe Source.
It is in this unsettled, edgy climate that Christie will lay out his plan to guide the state through the coming fiscal year. With less than robust economic growth and revenues continuing to fall short of projections, there exists little likelihood that he will recommend new or expanded spending programs.
Even in the face of average property taxes reaching a record $8,100, it’s doubtful that significant infusions of state aid to local governments -- the linchpin of efforts to control tax rates -- will be proposed. School districts and municipal governments should anticipate nothing more than flat funding.
Christie will, though, be expected to offer a somewhat detailed proposal to cope with the shortfall and long-term underfunding of the public pension and health-benefits system. Democrats have pledged to oppose any effort to require increased employee contributions or reductions in benefits while Christie has made it clear that in the absence of fairly dramatic revisions, the system is unaffordable.
While gubernatorial addresses to joint legislative sessions are always highly anticipated events, the mood surrounding next week’s budget speech will be unlike any other. No matter how strenuous the striving for normalcy, the uneasiness produced by the criminal investigations will weigh heavily on the event, never far from the minds of the audience.
What began as an effort to determine who was responsible for the amateurish, bungled attempt to punish the mayor of Fort Lee by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge has achieved a level of official inquiry unimaginable a year ago.
The administration’s been accused of ordering the dismissal of grand jury indictments against the governor’s supporters in Hunterdon County.
Subpoenas have been issued for travel records of David Samson, Christie’s appointee to the chairmanship of the Port Authority, amid revelations that United Airlines added service to Columbia, SC, to its flight schedule from Newark Liberty Airport for Samson’s convenience in reaching his vacation home near there.
The service -- described by Samson as “the chairman’s flight” -- was begun at a time when United sought authority approval for an extension of PATH service from Manhattan directly to the airport. The flights, never averaging more than half full according to the airlines’ records, ceased within 72 hours of Samson’s resignation from the authority. United executives were also significant contributors to political and business groups associated with Christie.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is in the midst of an investigation into allegations that the Port Authority misled potential purchasers of bonds to finance rebuilding the Pulaski Skyway by claiming the bridge was a part of the authority’s network. The Christie administration was relentless in insisting that the authority fund the work rather than use state resources.
Ethical questions have been raised over Christie’s use of private jets to transport him and his family, his acceptance of hotel accommodations paid for by the King of Jordan, and for allowing a private business group -- many of whose members hold state contracts -- to pay for his trip to England.
The Legislature will follow its usual protocol in considering the budget proposal -- public hearings and testimony from cabinet officers and other interested outside parties -- but the atmosphere will be markedly different from prior years.
All are acutely aware that the testimony that counts more than any other will come from U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.