Gov. Chris Christie’s final budget, outlined yesterday in an address to the Legislature, drew mixed reactions not just from the lawmakers who will soon be vetting it, but also from the gubernatorial candidates vying to be the one who has to live with it on taking office next January.
Some of those legislators and potential candidates are one and the same, but there are also some prominent outsiders running to replace Christie next year. And unlike most instances, when reaction tends to fall along party lines, candidates of both parties had some critical words for the $35.5 billion spending plan and some of Christie’s more controversial and vague proposals.
Kim Guadagno, Christie’s lieutenant governor and a declared Republican candidate, offered only a brief assessment when asked, saying the speech was the “first time I’ve had a chance to hear it or see it or hear a presentation.” She said she wanted to “take a hard look at a couple of the pieces of it” — specifically Christie’s call to use state lottery funds to bolster the pension system and to have Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey use its surplus funds to pay for charity care and Medicaid.
Guadagno said she supported the governor’s call to meet with lawmakers and hammer out a new school funding system in 100 days. But she was unhappy about some specifics that were missing from the speech. “I didn’t hear a lot of talk about affordability. I didn’t hear anything about the $300 million renovation of the State House,” said Guadagno, who has said she opposes the use of taxpayer money to “turn the State House into the Palace of Versailles,” as she said in a January speech announcing her candidacy.
Of the five declared GOP candidates, Guadagno’s most prominent opponent, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), was both complimentary and skeptical of Christie’s proposals.
“He’s finally showing something I’ve always looked for, which is innovation,” Ciattarelli said after the speech. He praised the governor for “showing the kind of collaborative spirit that we need to solve the problems that we’re up against here, because no one branch or no one majority or minority can do it on their own.”
On the other hand, Ciattarelli said he does not “necessarily like his proposal” regarding Horizon’s surplus. And he said he fears that the lottery proposal “sounds like a cost shift.” As for Christie’s call to work with lawmakers on a new school-funding plan, rather than continuing to push his own “fairness formula,” which would give every district the same per-pupil aid, that he has been promoting for months, Ciattarelli said it seemed like the governor had accepted the inevitable.
“He seems to be backing off his proposal knowing it won’t pass constitutional muster,” said Ciattarelli, whose own five-point plan would take aid from districts he calls “extremely overfunded” and give it to those that are “severely underfunded” and require all communities to fund through property taxes at least 25 percent of their schools’ operating and construction spending.
The Democrats were, not surprisingly, more critical.
“Gov. Christie made it clear in his speech today that he will leave New Jersey in far worse fiscal shape than what he inherited,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and one of nine Democrats so far to file for the party’s nomination. “Whether it’s underfunded pensions, underfunded transit, underfunded schools, or his record 10 credit downgrades, Gov. Christie is nothing but an underperformer whose greatest accomplishment will be his ability to tie up traffic.”
In a plea for contributions emailed to supporters, Wisniewski said the budget does nothing to help working men and women, ignores the “looming crisis” that would be created by a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and “promotes a corrupt charter school system that drains resources” from our public schools while shortchanging students.
“Once again, it is clear Christie doesn’t care about the people of New Jersey — he only cares about his political career,” Wisniewski wrote. “We need new leadership in our state now, more than ever.”
Speaking after the address, Wisniewski said Christie’s chronic underfunding of the state education formula has contributed to property-tax increases and teachers working without adequate resources at the same time that he has proposed the second-largest budget in state history.
“He only tells half of the story and conveniently portrays the facts in a light most favorable to him,” Wisniewski said. “So he’s a great trial advocate but not necessarily such a good governor.”
Wisniewski said it’s best that Christie did not push his school-funding proposal.
“The last person who should be responsible for solving school funding is the governor who is about to leave office,” he said. “It’s up to the next governor to set a school-funding formula.”
And he said it would be dangerous for Christie to “start nibbling away at” Horizon’s surplus.
“We are in need of drastic healthcare reform in New Jersey, especially in light of the fact that his (Christie’s) colleagues in Washington may undo the Affordable Care Act,” Wisniewski said “What we need to start looking at is a single-payer system.”
Two of his most prominent adversaries, Phil Murphy and Jim Johnson, agreed with Wisniewski’s statement that Christie’s final budget ignores New Jersey’s working class.
“Just as his first one did, Christie’s last budget continues to squeeze our middle class, dig our fiscal hole deeper, ignore the next generation, and make New Jersey less fair and less just,” said Murphy, a former Wall Street executive and ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, in a statement.
He criticized the governor for using questionable budgeting practices that have left the state in poor fiscal health, as well as for not planning to address any of the actions happening in Washington that are likely to hurt New Jersey.
“Diversions, unrealistic forecasts, underfunding of critical programs, ignorance of the structural fiscal issues, and a string of 10 straight credit downgrades are his legacy,” Murphy said. He added that this budget proposal “makes no safeguards in the face of Donald Trump’s cuts to environmental protection or his efforts to dismantle healthcare. His brand of special interest politics has broken our state and this budget is proof he won’t fix it.”
Jim Johnson, an attorney who served as an undersecretary in the US Department of Treasury in the Clinton administration, leveled some similar charges at Christie.
“For the past seven years, Gov. Christie has ignored the needs of the people, resulting in both the highest property-tax and foreclosure rates in the nation, one of the worst credit ratings in the country, and the third most-segregated school system,” he said in a statement. “In his final budget address, Christie failed yet again to deliver a budget that contains real solutions for working families.”
Johnson criticized the governor for “doubling down on corporate tax breaks and cutting funding for charity care,” as well as not addressing school disparities.
“The next governor will be tasked with undoing the damage that Gov. Christie has done to New Jersey’s economy and the lives of our residents,” he said.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) also had nothing positive to say about Christie's final budget, noting that the governor has failed to solve the problem that is often rated the state's most onerous: high property taxes.
"He has not advanced one reform to cut the institutional waste in government expenditures that drive up the cost of government and property taxes that are the highest in the nation," Lesniak said. "For that I consider his budget message a failure."