Gov. Chris Christie had a deep pool of seasoned Treasury officials on hand in recent years to help his administration navigate a series of tricky budget issues. But he’s entering 2016 — a year in which the state will have to address a number of tough economic concerns — with a relatively inexperienced state treasurer who has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate.
In the next few weeks, the Christie administration will be rolling out of a new state budget, readying for a battle with lawmakers over transportation funding and dealing with lingering uncertainty over the health of state tax collections. But it will not have those experienced budget hands in the fold, thanks to a string of recent retirements and Christie’s own decision to hire a treasurer who is new to state government.
Christie announced his pick of Princeton native Ford Scudder as the new state treasurer back in October, just months after Christie’s longtime former Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff left state government.
Given his background – Scudder has close ties to Arthur Laffer, a former a key economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan – it’s unclear whether the nominee will win confirmation from the Democratic-controlled Senate, something that’s required under the state constitution before the acting treasurer label can be removed.
Some key state lawmakers, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney, question whether Scudder, who has no government experience in New Jersey, is qualified to run the 3,100-employee Treasury department.
“He sounds like a very intelligent young man, but I don’t think he has the credentials,” Sweeney said of Scudder, echoing concerns he raised back in October. “His past beliefs are not really what we think would be best for the state of New Jersey.”
Scudder is being asked to lead an agency that in recent months has lost a series of top department leaders, including Sidamon-Eristoff and Charlene Holzbaur, Treasury’s longtime director of the Office of Management and Budget. Also leaving were Robert Peden, the office’s longtime deputy director, and Robert Romano, who led Treasury in an acting capacity until Christie brought on Scudder last fall.
On the legislative side of things, David Rosen, the longtime budget analyst for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, also retired within the last year, taking with him three decades of state government experience.
Christie has yet to formally submit Scudder’s nomination to lawmakers despite the announcement of his selection for the top job in Treasury several months ago.
Scudder is a 2005 Princeton University graduate and a chartered financial analyst who now lives in Red Bank. Prior to his selection by Christie, Scudder spent a decade working at Tennessee-based Laffer Associates, the consulting firm founded by Laffer, who is considered by many to be the father of the supply-side economics theory, which argues that lower tax rates encourage economic growth and investment.
Laffer is also the namesake of the “Laffer Curve,” a measurement that attempts to depict the point where higher federal tax rates lead to less tax revenue by discouraging work and investment.
Sweeney took issue with Scudder’s work for Laffer when asked about the acting treasurer during a meeting with reporters in his office in Trenton yesterday.
But Sweeney yesterday stopped short of saying Scudder’s nomination wouldn’t get a full hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee if it is eventually submitted by Christie. It’s unclear right now whether Scudder could win the approval of the full committee, which is controlled by Democrats. If he did clear the Judiciary panel, he would then have to pass the full Senate, which is also controlled by Democrats.
Still, there seem to be few, if any, duties under the state constitution that an acting treasurer couldn’t perform in New Jersey even without Senate confirmation. Christie also has a history of letting key officials serve for long periods of time without Senate approval, including former Education Secretary Christopher Cerf and current acting Attorney General John Hoffman.
For his part, Scudder has kept a low profile since taking over the Department of Treasury on Nov. 9. He appeared at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association’s policy conference in early December. He also wrote an opinion piece praising Christie’s leadership on state tax issues that was published in the Asbury Park Press on Nov. 17.
Treasury officials yesterday referred questions about Scudder’s status and the comments that were made about him by Sweeney to the governor’s office.
And while Christie was campaigning in New Hampshire yesterday, a spokesman back in New Jersey gave no indication that the administration is backing off of its pick of Scudder for the top job in Treasury. The Legislature is set to reorganize next week, and it would make sense for Christie to hold back the formal nomination of Scudder until the onset of the next two-year legislative session.
“Those announcements are made publicly in the normal course and Mr. Scudder’s nomination will be no different,” Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said.
Roberts also took issue with Sweeney’s critique of Scudder’s credentials to serve as treasurer.
“What the Senate president seems to be saying is that anyone who doesn’t share his devotion to a tax-and-spend, big government philosophy isn’t qualified for public service,” Roberts said. “Only in Trenton.”