With his legacy still a matter of debate thanks to record-low approval ratings, Gov. Chris Christie used his final State of the State address yesterday to emphatically recast his two terms in office, asserting that his tenure was one of consequence that will be viewed more fondly over time.
In a nearly 90-minute speech, the Republican governor drilled in deep to highlight several key issues that he took on, including urban renewal, property taxes, and education and seemed determined to demonstrate that his administration took on bigger problems than most predecessors and was able to accomplish more than he generally gets credit for.
“Due to the fighting attitude we brought and the pro-growth policies we have fought for and achieved together, I am proud to be here today to tell you that the State of our State is very good and — without question — much better than it was eight years ago,” Christie told a joint session of the Legislature during the late afternoon speech.
But even as Christie highlighted accomplishments that ranged from an improved state unemployment rate to the response and recovery from 2012’s superstorm Sandy, he also glossed over or omitted altogether several other key moments from his tenure, including the Bridgegate scandal, a series of credit-rating downgrades, last year’s state government shutdown and an ever-faltering New Jersey Transit system.
Murphy: ‘…dire fiscal crisis’
Still, Democratic legislative leaders largely held back their criticism afterward, a response that may have been set up by Christie repeatedly thanking Democrats and other partners during the speech for working with him on major initiatives, including reforming the state’s bail system and taking on the drug-addiction epidemic.
But Democrat Phil Murphy, who will take over the governor’s office next week, was far less gracious in his response, accusing Christie of painting a “sunny picture” of a state in “dire fiscal crisis.” He cited the fact that New Jersey’s economy fell behind other states, despite the national recovery.
“We will once again prioritize everyday New Jerseyans over the special-interest politics that have paralyzed our state for too long,” Murphy said.
Christie took office in early 2010 as the state was reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, and he was forced to make more than $2 billion in spending cuts in his first months in office as the state budget he inherited from Democrat Jon Corzine was falling significantly short of revenue estimates. He pointed to those early days of his tenure during the speech yesterday, suggesting his push to enact several tax cuts, and his repeated vetoes of Democratic tax proposals, have helped put the state back on a firm economic footing.
“We are handing off a state that is growing and a budget that is balanced,” Christie said.
Successes and setbacks
Despite Christie’s portrayal, New Jersey’s recovery has been a mixture of successes and setbacks, as the state’s unemployment rate, at just over 5 percent, is much improved compared to early 2010, but also higher than it was at this time last year, and also above the overall national jobless average. The state’s rate of economic growth has also trailed the nation’s as a whole during Christie’s tenure despite the overall improvement, according to federal labor data.
Christie also spent considerable time during yesterday’s speech going over his record on public-employee pension funding, suggesting the contributions made during his tenure have been substantial compared to prior administrations. And, in a parting shot, Christie also urged Democrats to make more progress on the pension issue even as they prepare for single-party rule in Trenton for the first time in eight years.
“The ‘failure to act’ option is running out of time,” Christie said.
But even as Christie portrayed his administration as being more responsible with pension funding than those before him — at one point he went so far as to go over the individual records of seven of his predecessors to try and make that case — he also sidestepped one of the major setbacks of his own tenure on the same issue; the failure to live up to a pension-funding ramp-up schedule that was established in his own 2010 state law. If that law had been followed, the state would be fully funding its obligation to the pension system in the current fiscal year. Instead, Christie has budgeted a payment that is 50 percent of the amount actuaries say the state should be contributing to help restore the system to good health.
Still, Christie said he had put “every ounce of political capital I had on the line” to make a difference on the pension-funding issue.
Christie has few regrets
“I do not regret one minute of it, despite the impact it has had on my political standing,” Christie said.
He was a bit more circumspect on the issue of the Sandy recovery, conceding the results “were not always perfect.”
“They never are perfect,” Christie said. “What was perfect was the effort, the compassion and the focus.”
But even in this area, Christie made sure to use the speech as an opportunity to respond to years-old criticism of his administration’s handling of the initial efforts to rid communities of storm debris, especially at the Shore. Those efforts were ultimately scrutinized by the federal government to ensure all spending was appropriate.
“We saved time and money for the people of New Jersey,” Christie said, as he continued to justify his administration’s handling of the issue.
Defends his record on taxes
Christie also defended his record on taxes, and at one point declared he vetoed more proposed tax hikes than “any governor in American modern history.” And on the one major tax hike that he did approve —the 23-cent increase of the state gas tax in 2016 — he said that decision was made to put the state’s Transportation Trust Fund back on stable footing after years of being ignored by prior governors.
“Our next governor, no matter how long he serves, will not have to reauthorize the TTF,” Christie said. “We crafted a plan where both commuters and taxpayers win.”
But Christie did not talk about the shutdown of state-funded transportation projects that preceded the deal on the gas tax, or the fatal New Jersey Transit train crash in Hoboken that occurred around the same time. He also made no mention of his controversial 2010 decision to cancel a long-planned trans-Hudson rail tunnel or the continuing struggles involving NJ Transit, an area that Murphy has emphasized as a top priority for his incoming administration.
Afterward, Senate President Steve Sweeney, who Christie personally praised during the speech, credited the governor for using the State of the State to focus on areas of compromise and shared accomplishment with Democrats.
“What you heard today is what is possible when two parties are willing to work together,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “I think what he laid out was actually a lot of highlights and accomplishments that we’re all proud of. Obviously, they wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t support them.”
‘For a minute’ Weinberg was going to miss him
Also gracious was Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who helped lead the investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closures and has been one of Christie’s loudest critics since he took office in early 2010.
“For a minute there, I almost thought I was going to miss him,” quipped Weinberg (D-Bergen).
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, offered far more direct praise, including Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-Morris). “Governor Christie will be remembered as the most successful governor this state has had this century,” Bucco said. “No matter what you think of him you have to recognize what he has accomplished for New Jersey and its residents.”
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, suggested Christie, even as he struggles today with approval ratings in the mid-teens, could enjoy a better outlook as time passes. People tend to look more favorably at governors after their tenures are over, Murray said, and he predicted Christie could enjoy the same benefit at some point, assuming he doesn’t take a position in the future that sets him up for additional criticism.
“Historically, the public’s attitude softens a bit,” Murray said.