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Irked by Christie’s Campaign Spending, Lawmakers Move to Limit Use of State Funds

Committee votes out bill preventing sitting governors from putting anything but official duties on state’s tab

Loretta Weinberg
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.

When Gov. Chris Christie appears in Iowa today for a presidential-campaign event, his security for a visit that will last through Saturday will be provided by taxpayer-funded New Jersey state troopers. And for Christie, a Republican who officially announced his candidacy for president last month, it will be just the latest out-of-state trip in a busy campaign that in recent days has also taken him -- and the troopers -- through New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Christie has thus far refused to reimburse New Jersey taxpayers for those security costs, even though the trips have little if anything to do with his official duties. And his stance contrasts sharply with that of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is also seeking the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination.

By some estimates, Christie’s regular out-of-state travel this year is costing New Jersey taxpayers on average about $60,000 each month.

What’s more, those bills are coming to taxpayers at the same time the Christie administration, citing budget concerns, is underfunding laws that dictate higher spending on local schools, public-employee pensions, and property-tax relief for seniors among other items.

Lawmakers in a state Senate committee yesterday said enough is enough, approving a bill that would ban public funds from being used by a governor “when traveling out of State and engaging in political activities and not activities directly related to the Governor’s regular and official duties.”

The bill would specifically prohibit taxpayers from covering expenses “incurred for travel, food, lodging, (and) security.” And 10 days after each trip the governor would have to file a notice with the New Jersey State Ethics Commission detailing the nature of the out-of-state travel.

Though the measure would apply to any future governor’s political trips as well, its Democratic sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, made no secret yesterday that it is inspired by Christie’s frequent campaigning.

“All we are asking for is fairness here,” said Weinberg (D-Bergen). “If you’re traveling on political business, then allow the political organizations backing you to repay the taxpayers of New Jersey.”

Weinberg’s position is shared by a majority of New Jersey residents, according to a survey released earlier this month by Monmouth University’s Polling Institute. A full 82 percent of those polled said Christie’s campaign should pick up the costs of security when he’s stumping for president out-of-state, while 13 percent said the costs should be shared between the campaign and taxpayers.

Only 1 percent said taxpayers should be footing all of Christie’s security costs, which is the governor’s current position.

Christie has maintained since last year, when he traveled the country extensively as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, that since his security detail must be with him wherever he goes, it doesn’t make sense for New Jersey’s taxpayers to be reimbursed for out-of-state trips.

But Wisconsin’s Walker has already announced that his campaign and not taxpayers will pay for the costs of his security while he pursues the presidency. Walker is a key rival of Christie’s, with recent polls of both Iowa and New Hampshire voters showing him ahead of Christie.

When asked about the bill yesterday, Christie’s office pointed to comments the governor made earlier this month when a reporter questioned him on the travel issue during a trip to New Hampshire.

“In the end, anywhere I go the troopers need to go, whether I want them to go or not. So we are going to continue to conduct this in the same way I’ve always conducted it,” Christie said, according to a transcript of the exchange that was provided by his office.

Spokesman Brian Murray also issued the following statement yesterday: “This is just another scene in the endless political drama being acted out by partisans in the Legislature, and there is no point to joining their daily theatrics.”

During the committee hearing, Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex) noted that former Gov. Jon Corzine, a one-term Democrat, went on trips in 2008 to stump for both Hillary Clinton and later Barack Obama as they campaigned for president that year. Corzine also attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008.

“I don’t recall anyone raising the issue at that time,” Thompson said. “I’m not sure why suddenly it’s become an issue here.”

But Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) later pointed out that Corzine wasn’t actively trying to get another job for himself at the time. In this case, Christie has already announced his candidacy for president and filed the necessary paperwork with federal-election regulators to pursue the office full time.

“He’s looking for a job. If you look at the private sector, if you are looking for another job, you don’t charge your (current) employer for your job search,” she said. “It just does not make rhyme or reason why we should even think of having taxpayers pay for his job search.”

Turner also noted that right now some “essential services" are not being fully funded in the state budget, using as an example state pension contributions that were pledged in a 2011 reform law signed by Christie that have since been underfunded by his administration.

“I’m particularly troubled because we can’t pay our bills,” Turner said.

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