Guadagno Steps Out from Christie’s Shadow, Into the Glare of Criticism

Chase Brush | October 28, 2016 | Politics
The administration and Democratic lawmakers took lieutenant governor to task for her comments on ballot question and TTF law, both of which have Christie’s blessing

Credit: NJ Office of Information Technology
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno — Gov. Chris Christie’s often seen but rarely heard No. 2 — may be finally stepping out from behind him and trying to carve out an identity of her own.

At least that’s what it looked like yesterday, when the Monmouth County Republican took to the FM airwaves at NJ 101.5 to blast a constitutional amendment set to appear on the ballot next month. The amendment would dedicate all revenues generated from the state’s recently hiked gas tax to funding transportation projects.

In the process, she opened a gaping schism between between her position and the one held by her boss, a two-term governor with little patience for disloyalty, who’s thrown his full weight behind the measure.

The response from Democratic authors of the legislation — and from Christie’s office — was immediate.

“The Governor finds it hard to believe that the Lieutenant Governor supports giving an unguarded pot of money to the Democrat-controlled legislature, rather than on needed infrastructure projects,” wrote Brian Murray, a Christie spokesperson. “It must be a misunderstanding.”

This is not the first time that Guadango, who stepped into the position of lieutenant governor just a few years after it was created, has broken rank and publicly come out in opposition to something Christie had announced his support for. But it is the first time that the lieutenant governor — a potential candidate for the party nomination to succeed Christie next year — has contradicted her boss on an issue of state policy, particularly one as prominent as Public Question 2, as it’s called.

Proponents of the ballot measure, including Christie, argue that the amendment is an integral part of the historic Transportation Trust Fund legislation recently brokered and passed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Trenton, as it would prevent the legislature from engaging in a habit long-harangued by good government advocates around the state: the raiding of funds earmarked, but not constitutionally dedicated, for purposes other than what they’re eventually used for..

There are dozens of examples like that, such as the state’s Clean Energy Fund, which Christie has raided each year in order to plug holes in the budget. Lawmakers have sought to prevent that from happening with the TTF, which pays for road, bridge, and rail projects across the state.

But in her telling of it yesterday, Guadagno, who had previously come out in opposition to the 23-cent gas tax included in the TTF legislation, argued that voting down the ballot question would force “them all to go back to the drawing board because they can’t borrow the money they need to make it work.” The TTF legislation authorizes the state to borrow $12 billion over the next eight years, but that borrowing power, according to a line in the bill, is “contingent upon voter approval” of the constitutional amendment.

But the ballot question itself does not ask voters to approve borrowing, only to amend “the Constitution to dedicate all revenue from the State motor fuels tax and petroleum products gross receipts tax to the Transportation Trust Fund.”

“The amendment does not change the current tax on motor fuels or petroleum products gross receipts. The dedication to the Transportation Trust Fund ensures that the revenue is only used for transportation purposes,” it reads.

The wording of the question and Guadagno’s response led to some confusion yesterday, as Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) and others blasted the Republican for her “complete and total misunderstanding of the ballot question.” In a statement, Prieto called the amendment “basic stuff” and Guadagno’s opposition “very troublesome.”

“The lieutenant governor doubles as the Secretary of State, who is in charge of our elections. Has our elections chief even read the ballot question?” he asked.

But while Guadagno did reiterate her opposition to the gas tax on 101.5’s “Digging in With Kim” yesterday, she also called the ballot question a “great idea” — just not if it means enabling the state to borrow $12 billion for transportation. While a defeat of Public Question 2 would likely complicate the TTF law, it would not prevent the gas-tax increase, experts say.

“What we’re really saying in this question is that you have my permission, you meaning the legislators, have my permission to borrow $12 billion and pay for it with that 23 cents, the diesel fuel tax and the ‘baby oil’ tax,” Guadagno said, referring to voter approval of the amendment, which would also dedicate all revenues from petroleum products and an additional three cents of the current motor fuels tax on diesel fuel to the TTF.

An email to Guadagno’s newly created “think tank,” Building A Better New Jersey Together, asking for clarification on her position was not returned.

Still, what may be more important that the specifics of Guadagno’s argument, according to political analysts, is the fact that she’s making it at all. A likely frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Guadagno has worked to craft an identity separate and apart from the Christie in increments over the past several months. She’s appeared less and less with him at public events, and over the summer announced the formation of the think tank for which she serves as honorary chair and which is widely perceived to be a preliminary platform for governor.

She also earlier this month declined to endorse the presidential bid of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, in whose campaign Christie has played an active — and some would say controversial — leadership role.

“I think the specifics about whether or not that’s good public policy you can go back and forth on, but if you look specifically at her statement afterwards, where she said ‘I did my research and I made my own decision’ — that seems to me clearly to be setting herself up that Chris Christie and she share a party, but they’re not the same thing,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall, referring to comments Guadagno made at an unrelated afternoon event in Trenton.

Indeed, Guadagno has good reason to separate herself from Christie, given how politically toxic he’s become over the past year. His own failed presidential bid was widely criticized by New Jerseyans who thought he should be taking care of business at home, and his continued involvement with Trump on the national stage — where he’s been relegated to a sort of waterboy status after being passed over for vice president — has led to yet more stigmatization. Concurrent with that has been the messy details uncovered in the federal Bridgegate trial, testimonials from which have contradicted his own statements on the scandal and seem to place him more squarely at the center of it.

All of those factors, plus public unhappiness with his administration’s handling of the Sandy recovery, have precipitated a stunning decline in his approval ratings at home, which have dropped from an all time high of 77 percent in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to a rock-bottom 21 percent this month. And that disapproval extends to his own party, where Republican voters and legislators have hinted at a growing distrust of the GOP leader.

“In order to win for governor [Guadagno] is going to have to do better than a 27 percent approval rating,” Hale said, referring to an earlier — but similarly dismal — poll of the governor’s approval rating. “So I think she’s decided that the hope for winning is to say I’m different.”

By opposing the gas tax, Guadagno joined a host of other legislators who have been petitioning against the measure since Christie signed it into law earlier this month. They include several Senators and Assembly members who represent more conservative districts in the state, including some rural areas where public transportation is less of an issue than in more urban areas. Many are up for reelection this November, and argue that their constituents can’t afford a hike at the pumps.

“People that know me know I’m independent minded,” state Senator Beck (R-Monmouth) told NJ Spotlight following the TTF vote earlier this month. “The governor and I have disagreed on a number of issues and this is one that we don’t agree on. Twenty-three cents a gallon is a very regressive tax, it’s going to impact low-income and working-class people, and it’s the wrong direction for our state.”

Like Guadagno, Beck also hails from Monmouth County, a heavily Republican area along the Jersey Shore. And like Guadagno she has been a relatively faithful Christie soldier in the Legislature, helping last year to vote down a veto-override attempt by lawmakers on a gun safety bill she herself co-sponsored. More recently, though, Beck — considered one of the most vulnerable members of the GOP as she faces down a roster of potential Democratic challengers in her home district next year — has become one of the most vocal critics of the TTF deal, talking about taking legal action to have it reversed.

Hale said it’s all part of the same strategy to make a clean break from Christie as election year approaches — though he added the issue may go beyond that.

“I think this gas tax, I think people are pissed off,” Hale said. “It feels like we’re taking away the one thing New Jersey had of its own: cheap gas, pumped by somebody else.”

A Fairleigh Dickinson Public Mind poll last week found that over half — 53 percent — of voters reject the 23-cent gas tax increase. Asked whether they support Public Question 2, 46 percent said they are in favor, with 39 percent opposed.