Gov. Chris Christie stepped off the presidential campaign trail yesterday to deliver the keynote address at a business forum on his home turf, and he was as outspoken as ever during a lengthy speech that largely focused on partisan politics.
Christie told the business leaders that the only way to secure a pro-growth, low-tax agenda in New Jersey is by fully supporting Republicans. He also strongly admonished some for choosing to play “kissy-face” with Democrats, who he said have a “hunger to feed at the trough” and will eventually increase the public payroll, spending, and taxes.
“This is what’s coming,” Christie warned the more than 100 business leaders attending the New Jersey Business & Industry Association’s annual public policy forum in East Windsor. “It’s what’s coming if you let it.”
And he was even more direct in making a pitch for political contributions to GOP causes, telling the business leaders to “open up the checkbook and get in the fight.”
“That’s what it takes,” Christie said. “Force must meet force. That’s what politics is about, everybody, especially in this state.”
For Christie, a second-term Republican who’s been concerned primarily with national issues this year while seeking his party’s 2016 presidential nomination, the speech marked a return, for at least a day, to a focus on New Jersey’s political landscape.
The speech also came just as he’s starting to pick up some signs of momentum in New Hampshire, which will host the nation’s first presidential primary early next year. And he could soon get another boost after criticizing GOP frontrunner Donald Trump earlier this week for making an inflammatory call to ban all Muslims from coming into the country. Christie called such a suggestion “ridiculous.”
But even as Christie has seen his presidential outlook improve after a long summer, he still faces big problems back home, including a state Transportation Trust Fund that’s on course to run out of money by the middle of next year. Christie has yet to say how he plans to renew the trust fund, which pays for road, bridge, and rail improvements throughout the state, but the issue was as a dominant one during a legislative roundtable that was held earlier in the day during the business forum.
Instead, Christie outlined what he said were the successes of his administration’s handling of the state’s economy, including an unemployment rate that’s down to 5.4 percent and the addition of more than 200,000 private-sector jobs since he took office amid recession in early 2010.
But he cautioned, with the next gubernatorial election looming in 2017, that those gains could easily be reversed unless a Republican follows him into the State House. And as evidence of the state’s underlying low-tax versus pro-tax struggle, Christie pointed to this year’s Assembly contests, which saw Democrats benefit from millions of dollars of support from labor unions as they picked up four seats and moved closer to a veto-proof majority in the lower chamber.
[related]“We’re in the thick of this fight every day here in New Jersey,” Christie said. “I want you all to understand this is a day-by-day battle that you must be engaged in.”
Afterward, business leaders seemed to take Christie’s challenge to heart.
Michele Siekerka, NJBIA’s president and chief executive officer, labeled Christie’s speech a “rallying cry” for the state’s business community.
“As we know, Gov. Christie tells it like it is,” Siekerka said. “We’re all adults and we can handle it.”
Tom Bracken, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“Everything he said is absolutely right on target,” Bracken said.
But Christie made no direct reference to the transportation-funding issue during his remarks, even after Democratic lawmakers offered up new details of an emerging compromise deal during the legislative roundtable.
Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) laid out a basic framework for a Transportation Trust Fund renewal that would result in an increase in the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax, which right now is the second-lowest in the country. The tax increase, Sarlo said, would also be coupled with a phasing out of New Jersey’s estate tax and a lifting of state exemptions on retirement income, including pensions, 401(k) distributions, and annuities.
That should answer Christie’s call for “tax fairness” in any deal to renew the trust fund, something the governor has defined as lowering other taxes if the gas tax is going to be increased, Sarlo said.
“We’re willing to put that package on the table,” Sarlo said. “He has to signal he’s willing to sign it.”
After the roundtable, Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) told reporters the Democrats’ proposal is “on the right track” even if it doesn’t result in dollar-for-dollar cuts to offset the increase in revenue from the gas-tax hike. But he refused to take a firm position on the plan without seeing legislation first.
“The devil is always in the details,” Bramnick said.
A group of pollsters who also spoke during the business forum weighed in on the gas-tax issue as well. Though most public-opinion surveys show New Jersey voters oppose an increase of the gas tax, they said that the opposition may be rooted more in a distrust of the Legislature’s ability to properly spend new revenue than an outright stance against new spending on infrastructure improvements.
Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, also predicted there would be little political risk for lawmakers who vote to approve the tax despite the prevailing public opinion. That’s because the tax hike will come well before the next legislative election and other issues will likely carry the day by then.
“A gas tax could be raised with a very little political price to pay,” Murray said. “There will be very few political casualties.”