Despite new criticism from Democrats, Gov. Chris Christie says he won’t reimburse taxpayers for security details on out-of-state trips, even when he’s traveling for purely political reasons.
What makes Christie’s declaration particularly ironic is that the second-term Republican gained popularity early on for using his veto pen to reject questionable spending by government authorities, eliminating items as small as $37,500. And it follows a decision made by another governor who faced similar questions about political trips and ultimately decided to pay back taxpayers for his security costs.
Christie says New Jersey State Police troopers are required to tag along wherever he goes, whether that’s on a trip to the local supermarket or to another state in support of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, who he endorsed last month after ending his own presidential campaign.
But his critics say there’s a clear distinction because, unlike runs to the local supermarket near his home in Morris County, the out-of-state trips require travel and lodging for the troopers, sticking taxpayers with the bill even when the trip is purely political.
In the wake of Christie’s Trump endorsement, Democratic lawmakers have pledged to reintroduce legislation that would prohibit taxpayers from funding security costs for political travel. And an organization led by potential 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy of Middletown has also launched an online petition that calls on Christie to “Do Your Job Or Quit.”
“By forcing New Jerseyans to pick up the tab for his travel expenses, Gov. Christie is effectively campaigning on the public dime and asking taxpayers to provide an in-kind contribution to Donald Trump’s xenophobic campaign,” said Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who now chairs the middle-class-focused political organization New Way For New Jersey.
In all, travel costs incurred by the New Jersey State Police unit that’s charged with protecting the governor at all times have totaled $1.57 million since Christie took office in early 2010, according to investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist, a contributor to NJ Spotlight. That includes $1.33 million in charges on an American Express card for unspecified expenses, Lagerkvist reported in a story last month.
A total of $494,420 in travel costs were incurred in 2014, when Christie was the leader of the Republican Governors Association. Through the first nine months of 2015, when Christie launched his presidential campaign, travel expenses totaled $419,771, Lagerkvist reported. More recent totals are not available.
In the past, arguments were made by some Christie supporters that the governor’s out-of-state travel indirectly benefitted New Jersey taxpayers by elevating the state’s profile and reputation nationally. But Christie is no longer running for higher office or supporting other GOP gubernatorial hopefuls as he did in 2014. Instead, he’s now a surrogate and supporter of Trump, the frontrunner in the contest for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination.
And Trump — who’s made a number of inflammatory statements as a presidential candidate, including accusing some New Jersey residents of celebrating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – doesn’t appear to be the first choice for president among Garden State voters.
A recent survey of the state’s registered voters that was conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll found Trump would lose a head-to-head contest here to both of the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. New Jersey voters were also asked to describe Trump in one word, and they regularly responded with words like “arrogant” and “idiot,” according to the poll.
Still, Christie defended his endorsement of Trump last week during a lengthy State House news conference. He said it was a decision he made based on a political goal of making sure Clinton doesn’t become the next president.
“If somebody doesn’t agree with it, you or anybody else, I don’t really care,” Christie told a reporter. “I don’t care, really. My choice, not anybody’s choice, and I made my choice.”
Christie also said his role in the Trump campaign would be as a part-time surrogate, limited to times when he could fit a campaign event into his schedule.
“This is not my campaign. It’s Mr. Trump’s campaign,” Christie said. “At times I’ll go out and help him.”
And when pressed by a reporter on the specific issue of taxpayers funding his security costs when he does leave the state for a Trump campaign event, Christie said he has “no choice in the matter.”
“The fact is, that for my safety and the safety of my family, the State Police sets the protocols and the procedures for that, that’s the way it’s always been,” Christie said.
“The point I’m trying to make is the taxpayers probably don’t want to pay for the State Police to go the supermarket with me either,” he went on to say. “That’s not my choice.”
“You want to change that, run for office and change that,” Christie said.
Other Republican governors have faced similar questions about their own political travel, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who reimbursed taxpayers for security costs racked up on the presidential campaign trail before he stepped down last year. But Ohio Gov. Jon Kasich, who remains in the race, has decided not to.
Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political science professor who is currently teaching a class on Christie, said the governor has had a propensity to “nickel and dime” other government agency spending in New Jersey during his tenure. In fact, it was Christie who in 2011 used rarely exercised gubernatorial veto powers to reject a $37,500 lobbying contract that had been previously approved by the Delaware River Port Authority. He also vetoed the actions of several other authorities, accusing them of wasteful spending.
And more recently he’s called the local government in cash-strapped Atlantic City a “mess” as he’s pressed for a state takeover of the resort’s finances.
Hale said Christie’s approach to the costs of his own out-of-state security detail is “direct conflict” with his handling of those other agencies.
“When the bill is something to help him, he’s a lavish spender,” Hale said.
There is also a difference between campaigning out-of-state for himself or for other Republican governors, and now going to others states for campaign events with the sole mission of helping another GOP presidential primary hopeful, he said.
“It’s pure politics,” Hale said.