When Gov. Chris Christie needed a new state treasurer last year, he turned to a financial analyst with little government experience and strong ties to a Reagan-era tax-cut guru. The Legislature’s top Democrat immediately cried foul, suggesting Christie’s pick would never win Senate confirmation.
But even as acting Treasurer Ford Scudder has helped Christie pitch a major tax cut this year — one that has created ongoing gridlock between the Legislature’s majority and the Republican governor — Scudder has been able to win over a key Democrat who is now promising to champion his Senate confirmation.
After two top Christie cabinet officials cleared the confirmation hurdle earlier this week, Sen. Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, said Scudder has built up a great rapport with lawmakers and deserves to be next.
“I have recommended to the Senate president that we confirm Ford Scudder,” said Sarlo (D-Bergen) during an interview with NJ Spotlight. “I’m willing to take the lead on that.”
No hearing on Scudder’s nomination has been scheduled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Sarlo’s endorsement of Scudder is an important first step to confirmation. In addition to leading the budget committee, Sarlo is a member of the Judiciary Committee, the panel charged under the state constitution with conducting formal reviews of executive-branch nominees.
A veteran lawmaker, Sarlo also has the ear of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who was the one to originally voice concerns about Scudder’s qualifications and background. Sweeney took issue with Scudder’s tenure as chief operating officer of Laffer Associates, a firm founded by Arthur Laffer, the former key economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan.
Laffer is known by many as the father of the supply-side economic theory that lower tax rates encourage economic growth and investment. He’s also the namesake of the “Laffer Curve,” a measurement first scrawled on a cocktail napkin, which attempted to depict the point where higher federal tax rates would lead to less tax revenue by discouraging work and investment.
Sweeney first raised concerns about Scudder back in October after Christie announced he was picking the Princeton native and Princeton University graduate to fill a position left vacant after the resignation of former Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff several months earlier.
Sweeney said New Jersey was the wrong place to reintroduce Reagan-era tax policies that “caused so much lasting damage to the economy and left middle class families and the working poor to struggle against economic forces that worked against them.”
“We should disown the trickle-down Laffer philosophy and invest in the people of New Jersey in ways that extend economic opportunities to everyone so that the economy grows and offers prosperity to all our citizens,” Sweeney said at the time.
Fast forward several months and now Christie is backing a proposal — with Scudder running the numbers for him — to cut New Jersey’s general sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent. That tax-cut proposal was put forward by the governor in late June in response to calls from Sweeney and other Democratic lawmakers to hike the state gas tax to renew funding for transportation projects.
In fact, Christie’s disagreement with Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) on state tax policies has led to the near depletion of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund and an ongoing shutdown of road, bridge, and rail projects throughout the state during the peak of the summer construction season. Industry experts say the shutdown is leading to layoffs that could impact the state’s economy, while transportation advocates have warned that it is also threatening motorist safety.
Christie has insisted on the broad-based sales-tax reduction, arguing a supply-side case that it will put money back in the hands of taxpayers and provide some economic stimulus. But the Democratic leaders are instead backing a series of targeted tax cuts to help ease the pain of the proposed 23-cent gas tax hike, which would cost the average motorist an estimated $150 more a year.
The tax-cut package backed by Democrats would take nearly $900 million from the state budget once fully phased in, a cost they argue would be more affordable than the estimated $1.6 billion price tag for the sales-tax cut backed by Christie. That gap is at the heart of the ongoing impasse.
Sarlo has been directly involved in the transportation-funding discussions, and though there’s been disagreement on which way to go forward, he went out of his way this week to praise Scudder’s personable approach with lawmakers. “He was willing to sit down with us,” Sarlo said. “It’s an open-book process.”
That experience followed their close interaction while working together on the latest state budget earlier this year. Sarlo said Scudder won praise from lawmakers from both parties during his numerous appearances before them as they sorted through what became the $34.5 billion spending plan that Christie enacted on June 30. “He has been very forthcoming with the budget committee,” Sarlo said.
Scudder, a Little Silver resident, was one of several Christie cabinet members who were serving in an acting capacity. But the Senate confirmed Attorney General Christopher Porrino and Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer on Monday. A spokesman for Treasury declined comment yesterday on the possibility that with Sarlo’s support Scudder could be next.