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Christie Touts Region’s Best Unemployment Rate, Credits Anti-Tax Stance

Governor says incentives have fueled business growth; critics caution that many states have also shown improvement

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Armed with new labor statistics that show New Jersey’s unemployment rate has now fallen below the nation’s and all other states in the region, Gov. Chris Christie came forward yesterday to tout his administration’s anti-tax policies.

The governor’s victory lap highlighted a drop in New Jersey’s unemployment rate that reached nearly 2 percentage points between January 2015 and this past January, which was the best 12-month decline in the jobless average for any U.S. state over that period.

“I do not think that that is coincidental,” Christie said during an afternoon news conference held at the headquarters of HelloFresh, a Linden-based food-delivery company.

New Jersey’s improving unemployment picture also drew praise yesterday from Republican lawmakers and business-lobbying groups who share Christie’s views on tax policy. But a liberal think tank called the state’s progress only “modest,” and downplayed any connection to Christie administration initiatives.

Meanwhile, other unemployment statistics released this week also served to pour some rain on Christie’s parade, showing New Jersey had a rough month of January, losing more than 14,000 jobs.

And though Christie tried to put the focus on the economy and jobs yesterday, he faced repeated questions from reporters about his decision earlier this week to skip the funeral for a New Jersey state trooper who died in the line of duty. Christie instead attended out-of-state campaign events with GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.

For Christie, the state’s unemployment rate has in recent years been a source of discomfort, long trailing both the federal jobless rate and other states in the region as New Jersey has struggled to fully recover from the Great Recession.

Better than U.S. rate

But new figures released earlier this week by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the New Jersey unemployment rate dropped to 4.5 percent in January, well below the federal 4.9 percent jobless average.

New Jersey’s unemployment rate is also now lower than the rates in Pennsylvania, 4.6 percent; Delaware, 4.7 percent; New York, 4.9 percent; and Connecticut, 5.5 percent.

New Jersey’s rate has been in a steady decline since the summer of 2012, with that progress coming even after superstorm Sandy hit the state and caused extensive damage that fall.

And though the state’s own labor tables showed New Jersey shed 14,100 jobs in January, including 10,800 private-sector jobs, Christie told reporters to focus more on the state’s unemployment rate because the jobs figures are preliminary and tend to be revised.

That approach marks a bit of shift for the Christie administration, which has in the past attempted to cast some doubt on the accuracy of the unemployment survey.

Back in September 2012, when New Jersey’s jobless average was a far less flattering 9.3 percent, the Christie administration’s then-chief economist said there were some “significant issues” with how the rate was calculated.

And the governor himself said in early 2013 that he had “no idea what the unemployment rate means.”

“And I suspect the people who do it have no idea what the unemployment rate means,” he added.

But yesterday Christie took particular pride in pointing out the gap that now exists between the unemployment rates in New Jersey and Connecticut, where a Democratic governor has allowed lawmakers to raise taxes. Christie said his own administration has held the line on taxes, while also phasing in a set of business-tax reductions and offering tax incentives to help companies willing to expand in New Jersey.

“I would say it is not coincidental at all to take a look at the fact that you have two states in the region that have clearly gone in opposite directions during the time I have been governor,” he said.

And with a governor’s race looming here in 2017 – New Jersey’s constitution prevents Christie from seeking a third term – he cautioned against electing a Democrat to follow him.

“They are going to raise all kinds of taxes on the people of this state and you are going to wind up being in the same position that a Connecticut is in,” Christie said.

HelloFresh, which hosted the governor’s event yesterday, was awarded a $37 billion tax incentive through the state’s Economic Development Authority last year for an expansion that will create 400 new jobs. The company, which also has locations in California and Texas, has found success by delivering meal ingredients to the doorsteps of 500,000 subscribers.

“We take all of the hard parts of the cooking and leave to the customers the fun part,” said Adrian Frenzel, the company’s co-chief executive officer.

Who gets the credit?

Christie called the company’s expansion “another great example of what we’re trying to do here in New Jersey.”

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who also attended the event yesterday, said afterward that analyzing the new economic statistics “ain’t that complicated.”

“Businesses realize that the governor has their back,” Bramnick said.

Reached after the news conference, Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said the improving unemployment figures mesh well with the results of her own organization’s survey, which found state’s employers were generally optimistic heading into 2016.

She also said the Christie administration’s business-tax cuts and incentive programs simply needed some time to take root.

“This is what we’ll continue to see in the years going forward,” Siekerka said.

But New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank based in Trenton that has been critical of Christie’s economic initiatives, cast doubt yesterday on the governor’s claims that it’s his tax policies that are influencing the declining unemployment rate.

“It's a positive, if modest, sign that things are starting to improve here like they have elsewhere, but to suggest that it's the result of corporate tax cuts or subsidies is merely trying to place the square peg of New Jersey's economy into the round hole of trickle-down economic ideology,” the organization said in a statement.

With dozens of other states enjoying more overall job growth since the end of the recession, the think tank said New Jersey still has “a lot of work to do.”

John Currie, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, also took issue with Christie’s comments. He said the governor’s economic policy has generally been to “take from hardworking New Jersey families, then to funnel money to his corporate cronies and spend frivolously on his misguided political priorities.”

“Not only do Democrats offer a much more promising future this year and next, but Christie has been out-of-state and out-of-touch so much that he's not qualified to say what's best for our state," Currie said.

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