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Christie’s NJ Speech Really Aimed at Voters in Iowa, NH, Critics Contend

Democrats complain campaign-style speech lacks details while GOP applauds call for eliminating estate tax, bolstering drug-treatment programs

Gov. Chris Christie

There were shots leveled at President Barack Obama and Congress, a lengthy attack on public employees, and a call for the immediate repeal of a major tax.

Gov. Chris Christie may have delivered his State of the State address in New Jersey yesterday, but the themes he stressed would have fit nicely into one of the speeches that he’s been giving on the campaign trail in recent months as he seeks the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination.

That merging of his State of the State speech with the messaging of his presidential campaign was not lost on the Democrats who control the state Legislature. They criticized the second-term Republican yesterday for glossing over some of the state’s biggest challenges, namely a transportation-infrastructure account that’s on course to go broke by the middle of the year.

But Republican lawmakers and business groups praised Christie’s address, lauding a call to repeal New Jersey’s estate tax in 2016 and proposals to increase funding for addiction services and mental-health treatment.

In fact, Christie spent a big chunk of the roughly 50-minute speech talking about the need to revamp addiction services, an issue he’s already successfully used in places like New Hampshire and Iowa to connect with voters and soften an unfavorable image that was largely created by the 2014 Bridgegate scandal.

“Addiction is an illness and is something we can beat,” Christie said. “If we give people the tools and support they need to overcome this disease -- and if we choose to free people from the stigma of addiction, and recognize this as the public-health challenge it truly is -- we can help people to reclaim their lives”

In another long section of his speech, he railed against a proposed constitutional amendment that if approved by New Jersey voters in November would in a few years require the state to make full contributions to the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system. Christie sternly warned that the payments that would be required under the Democratic-sponsored pension-funding proposal would mean drastic tax hikes or spending cuts.

Those words echoed attacks on public-worker benefits that Christie has used in the past to boost his image among Republicans nationally. “New Jersey is watching -- let them see now, well in advance, how you are going to take their money from them to repay your union bosses,” Christie said. “This is the truth of your choice and you know it. To pay for gold-plated pensions and platinum health benefits for a chosen, constitutionally protected few.”

Christie also attempted to put the best possible face on the state of New Jersey’s economy and finances. That’s something he’s had to do repeatedly as a presidential candidate as debate moderators and GOP rivals have been focusing on unemployment in New Jersey that trails the national average and a series of credit-rating downgrades that have left the state ranked among the worst in the country.

But yesterday he stressed that more than 220,000 jobs have been created during his six-year tenure. He also talked about efforts to hold the line on taxes while also phasing in more than $2 billion in business-tax cuts. And he focused on the general theme of leadership -- another message taken right out his presidential campaign literature.

“Instead of going for the quick fixes or the easy solutions, we’ve gone for hard solutions and a long-term revolution in the way we run our state,” Christie said. “This is what it means to be a governor, to be a real leader.”

Christie also did his best to downplay some of the big problems that New Jersey is dealing with right now, problems that wouldn’t play well on the national circuit. They include a state Transportation Trust Fund that’s on a course to go broke in less than six months. Lawmakers want to raise the gas tax to replenish the fund, something Christie has yet to embrace, resulting thus far in a stalemate.

And even while introducing the new initiatives to boost drug-addiction services, including the conversion of an old state prison in Burlington County into an inmate-treatment center, Christie was light on the details of how he would pay for the proposals. A call to give more support to charter schools in New Jersey also wasn’t fully detailed, beyond a promise to “explore ways” to reduce burdensome regulations.

Just minutes after the speech ended, Democratic legislative leaders criticized it as lacking substance on key issues -- and skipping others altogether.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said Christie’s address left him “disappointed.”

“We got a speech that I really don’t think was geared to New Jersey,” Sweeney said.

And he said Christie’s long attack on the proposal Sweeney’s sponsoring to shore up the pension system was missing a key fact: It was Christie who walked away from a previous pension-payment schedule that was included in a bipartisan benefits-reform law enacted in 2011. That law required employees to contribute more toward their pensions, which they have done.

Democrats, meanwhile, are also using Christie’s own latest pension-funding schedule as a foundation for the proposed amendment.

“He’s refusing to acknowledge his own numbers now,” Sweeney said.

That’s an issue that was also seized on by Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the New Jersey Education Association.

“The governor used scare tactics and false choices to justify his failure to responsibly fund pensions under the reform law that he signed -- and very quickly broke,” Steinhauer said. “While the governor broke the law he spearheaded, he calls union employees -- who followed the law -- ‘selfish.’”

“The only thing more delusional than the governor’s pension statistics are his presidential aspirations,” Steinhauer said, referring to polls that show Christie is still struggling to become a top-tier GOP presidential candidate.

On other pressing issues, like transportation funding, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said she was frustrated by Christie’s failure to speak in any real detail.

“He didn’t talk about the state of our state,” she said. “This speech, to me, didn’t even resemble a State of the State speech.”

Leaders in the Assembly, meanwhile, also panned Christie’s performance. Like Weinberg, Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) pointed to Christie’s failure to talk in any detail about the transportation-funding issue.

“That, I think, is priority No. 1,” Prieto said. “That should have been a big component of his speech.”

And on Christie’s call for an immediate repeal of the estate tax, he said there was no information about how the governor plans to plug an up to $400 million hole that would be created in the state budget by repealing the tax.

“That is not possible,” Prieto said.

But Republicans in the Legislature praised Christie, finding much to like in his proposals on addiction treatment and the call for a repeal of the estate tax.

“Allowing people to hold on to more of their hard-earned money will give them a reason to stay in New Jersey and contribute to our economy, especially as they get older,” said Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-Morris).

The proposal to repeal the estate tax was also lauded by business-lobbying groups. Tom Bracken, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said the estate tax and the inheritance tax -- New Jersey is one of only two states in the country to levy both -- is holding back business investment here.

“This is not an issue of wealth protection,” Bracken said. “This is about making New Jersey more competitive.”

Repealing the tax “would send a signal that New Jersey is serious about improving the state’s economic climate,” said Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

And Senate Minority Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) said Christie’s call for more funding for mental-health services and addiction treatment and the creation of a drug-treatment center for inmates are proposals that deserve “strong bipartisan support.”
But it’s unclear when lawmakers will be able to work with the governor next on that issue and others as he now resumes a busy campaign in advance of upcoming votes in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

According to a schedule of events distributed by Christie’s campaign office, he will be heading immediately back to the campaign trail today. Christie is scheduled to participate in two town hall events and a roundtable discussion with police officers in New Hampshire, his campaign said.

Weinberg, the state Senate leader, said that means lawmakers back in New Jersey will get stuck doing most of the hard work.

“We will be here, left to figure out how we’re going to be able to meet the real and serious problems in the state of New Jersey,” she said.

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