By devoting nearly all of this year’s State of the State to New Jersey’s growing opioid addiction problem, Gov. Chris Christie largely avoided talking about longstanding issues like property taxes and pension funding. He also offered no new policy proposals other than for addiction services.
That omission was not lost on Democratic lawmakers, who faulted the governor yesterday for devoting so much of his lengthy address to one topic, saying issues like the economy, education, and healthcare should also be part of the conversation. Some faulted his opening remark that the state of the state in New Jersey is good at the start of his last year in office because many long-term problems have already been dealt with.
Candidates who have already entered the 2017 governor’s race laid out their own visions for improving the state during a forum that was held in Trenton before Christie delivered his speech. They covered much more than drug addiction, portraying the overall conditions in New Jersey in a far less flattering light.
The big challenge for Christie coming into this year’s State of the State address — the seventh he’s delivered since taking office in early 2010 — was putting a positive spin on what was, by most accounts, a tough year for him personally. Christie, who was once considered to be a top-tier GOP presidential contender, decided to drop out of the presidential race early last year after poor showings in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Though he endorsed eventual winner Donald Trump early on, he wasn’t picked for a job in Trump’s incoming administration.
Christie also suffered through the lengthy and bruising federal corruption trial of two former allies charged in Bridgegate, and his job-approval rating is among the lowest ever measured for any New Jersey governor in modern history. Job creation in New Jersey also slowed last year coming off a banner year in 2015, and in November the state suffered its latest credit-rating downgrade over concerns about pension funding and the long-term health of the state budget.
Christie’s decision to focus almost entirely on the issue of addiction yesterday reflected a “no harm, no foul” strategy, said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute. For New Jersey residents, Murray said property taxes remain the biggest concern.
“This is still the issue when we talk to people in New Jersey that really gets in their craw,” Murray said. “It’s just emblematic of the government breakdown and the unaffordability of the state.”
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) said other issues, like poverty, need to be talked about and could be included in the conversations on addiction services that Christie said he now wants to have with lawmakers.
“We have an increasing level of poverty amongst children in this state,” Greenwald said, citing statistics showing an increase of more than 10 percent.
“We need to work together as Republicans and Democrats to attack that poverty issue,” Greenwald said.
Assembly Budget Chair Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) also raised the issues of college affordability, student debt, and the economy, including a scarcity of good-paying jobs.
“I applaud what the governor did today — my only concern is that he did not do enough,” Schaer said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) also pointed to a challenge Christie issued to lawmakers yesterday to approve changes to addiction-coverage policies within 30 days as a sign that more could be accomplished on other issues once that work is completed.
“Let’s deal with school funding, let’s deal with higher education, there’s a whole host of issues that my colleagues could run off that we still need to deal with,” Sweeney said. “I don’t want to waste a year of doing nothing.”
“I still think he’s the governor and there are areas where we should be willing to compromise and work, and we will fight him like we have for seven years when we don’t agree,” he said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy also raised the issue of school funding during a networking event held before Christie’s speech and hosted by NJ Advance Media at the nearby Wyndham Garden Hotel. Murphy criticized a plan Christie promoted last year that called for redistributing a share of state school aid from poor communities to suburban districts. He also laid out a vision for the state that was focused heavily on improving the economy with technology, infrastructure, and focused urban redevelopment.
“Without a strong middle class, there’s no way New Jersey can have a strong economy,” said Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and veteran of the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) — who also is in the running for the Democratic nomination — questioned whether those without state government experience are up to the job of serving as governor. Christie was U.S. Attorney before winning the governor’s race in 2009, and the man he beat that year, Democrat Jon Corzine, also had a long career on Wall Street working for Goldman Sachs.
“We saw the Wall Street way didn’t work, and we know Chris Christie’s bullying has been a disaster,” Wisniewski said. He went on to call for free college tuition for low-income students and more focus on issues like climate change.
“New Jersey deserves the kind of leadership that is transformational, not transactional,” Wisniewski said.
And while Christie spoke only in broad strokes about the economy and jobs, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset) called for a new focus on small businesses. He also didn’t shy away from criticizing Christie’s record.
“After all the corporate welfare of the last seven years, let’s do something for our small businesses,” said Ciattarelli, who promised he wouldn’t represent “a Chris Christie third term.”
“We need to go in an entirely different direction, a new direction,” he said.
Two other Democratic hopefuls also spoke during the forum, Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) and former firefighter Bill Brennan of Wayne.