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Background to Christie State of State: High Unemployment, Property Taxes

Governor enters final year in office with low approval ratings and some Republican lawmakers breaking ranks to oppose him

Gov. Chris Christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie

When Gov. Chris Christie ran for president last year, he frequently promised to “tell it like it is.” But this year, as Christie is now getting ready to deliver another State of the State address in Trenton, telling it like it is may not be so easy for him to do.

After seven full years with Christie in office, New Jersey property taxes remain the most expensive in the nation while rebates have been reduced. The state’s unemployment rate remains higher than the national average, and the public-employee pension system is also still in big trouble despite Christie’s one-time reform efforts. The Christie administration has also become the latest in Trenton to be tarnished by scandal.

For Christie himself, the outlook at the start of a new year is not very rosy. His job-approval rating has fallen to a near record-low for a New Jersey governor, and he just watched lawmakers from his own Republican Party break ranks for the first time and refuse to provide the votes needed to pass legislation that Christie made a priority at the end of 2016. These included a bill seeking to change state ethics rules to allow him to profit from a book-publishing deal.

A spokesman for Christie declined to provide any speech excerpts or hints of the issues that the governor will emphasize during the address, which he is scheduled to deliver to a joint session of the Legislature in the State House tomorrow afternoon. But many in Trenton are expecting he will adopt a wide-angle view and attempt to highlight things like the economic improvement that has occurred since he first took office amid recession in early 2010, and success on policy priorities like improving addiction-treatment services.

Political analysts say the address could also give an indication of whether Christie plans to go out with a bang during his last full year in office by continuing to be on the attack, or if he’ll instead follow up on the bipartisan signals sent last week when he showed an eagerness to work with lawmakers from both parties to do things like revitalize the capital city of Trenton. And while Democrats say they do want to hear Christie talk about the economy during the speech tomorrow, they’re also hoping he identifies transportation as a top priority for 2017.

According to the most recent public-opinion polls, Christie is entering 2017 with some of the lowest approval ratings of any New Jersey governor in modern history. A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll released last month found only 18 percent of New Jersey’s registered votes approved of Christie’s job performance. That was the lowest approval rating measured for any New Jersey governor since FDU started conducting public-opinion polls in the early 2000s, said Krista Jenkins, a political science professor who serves as the PublicMind poll’s director.

The latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll yielded similar results, with just 19 percent of registered voters saying they had a favorable opinion of the governor. Ashley Konig, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, said the same survey showed Christie for the first time since taking office had lost support from a majority of Republicans.

Amid that historic lack of popularity, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), and many other Republicans have begun to openly disagree with Christie. Guadagno, a possible GOP candidate for governor this year, publicly urged voters last year to go against Christie’s wishes on a ballot question seeking to dedicate fuel-tax revenue to transportation projects. Guadagno and Beck were also among the many Republicans who spoke out against legislation supported by Christie that sought to raise salaries for dozens of judges, executive-branch cabinet members, and political appointees while also relaxing ethics rules to enable Christie to profit from a book deal.

Still, even as support for that legislation and a bill that was moving along with it that would have ended a longstanding requirement that governments buy legal notices in newspapers fell apart in late December, there are still signs of Christie’s lingering power.

Democratic legislative leaders last month shelved a planned attempt to override a Christie veto of a measure seeking to strengthen state regulations to ensure equal pay for women. That left Christie’s long streak of never having suffered a successful override in both houses intact. And even as Christie is extremely unpopular with voters in 2017, he’s still on course to become the first governor in more than a quarter century to serve out two full terms in office. Thomas Kean was the last New Jersey governor to do so, and he left office in 1990.

Christie himself took note of that milestone during public comments he made in Trenton last week after he signed a new law seeking to boost New Jersey small businesses by making it easier for them to bid for state and federal government contracts.

“This is the first time in nearly 30 years that we’ve had an administration that will have a governor who lasted eight years . . . and will participate in the transfer of power after eight full years as governor,” Christie said. “It’s been a long time since New Jersey has experienced this.”

But Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political science professor who’s taught a course on Christie’s governorship, said the boast is somewhat misleading. Hale noted Christie spent the better part of two years making frequent trips out of state, including his unsuccessful bid for president. Christie then campaigned for Donald Trump and was widely expected to get a role in his administration before the two men had a falling out.

“If he had been offered anything in the Trump administration, I think he would have jumped at it,” Hale said. “It’s revisionist for him to say ‘I stuck it out.’”

Hale also said as Christie delivers the speech tomorrow he’ll be looking for clues that will show whether the governor is looking to renew his commitment to doing the “grunt work” in New Jersey in 2017, or if he will instead choose to spend the year simply hammering away at Democrats.

“I think what he’s going to try and do in his last year is try and go out with less hatred,” Hale said. “I think his goal is to not be hated as much as he is right now.”

For their part, Democrats say they don’t have high expectations for the speech after a Christie spokesman promised in a statement in the final days of 2016 that passing the legislation seeking to end the mandatory publishing of legal notices would be a top priority for the governor in 2017. The measure has been dubbed Christie’s “newspaper revenge bill” since it would take away a revenue stream for New Jersey newspapers that Christie has clashed with throughout his two terms in office.

Christie also spent considerable time last year pushing a school-funding proposal that sought to ease property taxes in suburban communities by redistributing more of the state aid that currently goes to poor school districts to those in suburban districts. But Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said that plan “is never going to get off of first base.” And on Friday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced he’s moving forward with plans to appoint a new Select Committee on School Funding Fairness to find ways to fully fund education in all communities.

Democrats, Weinberg said, want to see the economy and major mass-transit projects that help to foster economic development get more attention from the Christie administration in 2017.

“The top priority for all of us is an improved economy,” she said.

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