News Column

Recovery Is Job 1 for Christie

Jan. 7, 2013

John Reitmeyer

Moments after winning election in 2009, Chris Christie declared that he was going to turn Trenton "upside down."

After three full years in office, it's clear the Republican governor, now seen by many as a likely presidential candidate in 2016, has put his stamp on much of state government.

He placed a tighter cap on property tax increases. He convinced lawmakers to pass a bill changing teacher tenure rules for the first time in a century.

He made public employees pay more for their pension and health benefits and worked with the Democrats who control the state Legislature to reorganize New Jersey's higher education system.

Christie's work in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy last fall, including his unhesitant partnering with President Obama right before the presidential election, also stands in contrast with the partisan gridlock that has gripped much of Washington, D.C. The governor now has approval ratings over 70 percent as he prepares to kick off his 2013 reelection campaign.

"I said that we were going to go to Trenton and we were going to turn it upside down," Christie said last year, echoing his victory speech. "We've turned Trenton upside down."

But the outspoken governor has also fallen short of the dramatic changes he hoped for in several priority areas. And despite Christie's regular talk of bipartisanship in Trenton, he remains in deep conflict with Democrats on many issues, including same-sex marriage, minimum wage and the makeup of the state Supreme Court.

Here is a breakdown of Christie's impact on the state -- and his unfinished business -- as he heads into the final year of this term:

Property taxes: Christie devoted much of his first years in office to working on the property tax issue and, at this point, can claim a partial victory. While property tax bills continue to rise, the rate of growth has slowed under his 2 percent cap. But a $1 billion budget hole he inherited amid a recession in 2010 forced Christie to significantly reduce state funding for property tax relief and towns now have begun hiking fees to get around the cap, with new reforms not yet in place to stop that from occurring.

Economy: Despite the governor's much-promoted attempts to stimulate economic development with tax cuts and lucrative corporate tax incentives, state revenues have only slowly rebounded after years of recession. Unemployment in New Jersey is right about where it was when he took office in late January 2010, a full 2 percentage points higher than the current national jobless rate of 7.8 percent. Christie has also yet to act on a bill that would increase the state's minimum wage and tie future increases to the Consumer Price Index, something he has threatened to veto.

Education: One of Christie's biggest first-term accomplishments came when he convinced the Legislature to pass a bill that redrew teacher tenure rules. Now it takes longer to get tenure, it's easier to revoke, and there is a new mentor and review process. Christie believes the move will improve student performance, especially in the poorest communities where the state subsidizes the schools with billions of dollars in aid.

And despite complaints from the state's most powerful teachers union about the governor's treatment of them, the Christie administration is spending as much as any previous administration on direct aid to school districts in New Jersey.

Earlier this year, Christie also convinced lawmakers to merge Rutgers University with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and voters approved a $750 million higher-education bond issue he supported. But the governor has yet to get his full education agenda enacted by the Legislature, including a merit-pay system for teachers.

Budget: Christie's current state budget is in jeopardy because his bold projections for revenue growth have, so far, not materialized. The $31.7 billion spending plan, enacted last June, increased state spending by $2 billion, using projections that were widely viewed at the time as excessively optimistic. Now, six months into the fiscal year, tax collections have fallen short of those projections, with more than a dozen streams of revenue in some type of trouble.

Unless the gap -- measured by the most recently available Treasury revenue reports at $451 million -- is made up before the end of June, Christie could be forced to make midyear spending cuts just to keep the budget in balance as required by the state constitution. The budget problems have also put the income tax cut that Christie hoped to have in place for his reelection bid on the chopping block in 2013.

Pension system: Christie worked with Democratic lawmakers to make public employees pay more for their health and pension benefits, another major victory and a first for the state. On the pension side, the changes were designed to address a system that was underfunded by tens of billions of dollars as of the last accounting -- a significant factor in the state's credit downgrade by major Wall Street ratings agencies in 2011. The new pension rules have helped reduce the shortfall, but that unfunded liability remains at more than $36 billion. And the gap will continue to widen as long as Christie continues to skip or only partially pay what actuaries say the state should be putting into the pension system on an annual basis.

Borrowing: The last time New Jersey's debt total was officially released -- over a year ago, with the current report now a month overdue -- the figure stood at $38 billion. The rate of growth, however, seems to have slowed during Christie's tenure. But New Jerseyans continue to carry more debt per capita than the residents of nearly every other state. A total of 7 percent in new borrowing has been added to the state's debt burden since Christie took office. And earlier this year, as the revenue shortfalls began to multiply, Christie stuck with his plan to increase spending even when it meant borrowing millions more.

Ethics: Christie was the U.S. attorney for New Jersey before becoming governor, taking on public corruption with high-profile investigations that resulted in elected officials from both parties going to prison. And his first State House news conference as a candidate in 2009 highlighted ethics and government reform. As governor, Christie put forward an ambitious ethics agenda. It calls for new campaign-finance rules and a complete ban on elected officials holding other offices or taxpayer-funded jobs. But the governor hasn't been able to convince lawmakers to enact his ethics reforms. And he has raised eyebrows for not seeking transparency from two federally registered groups that have spent millions to boost his image both in New Jersey and nationally without having to fully disclose donors.

Supreme Court: Christie still wants to remake the state Supreme Court, but his efforts to do so have become one of the most contentious issues of his tenure. It started in 2010, when the governor refused to reappoint Justice John Wallace, the court's only African-American member. Democrats, in response, refused to fill Wallace's seat until his term would have ended in 2012. Christie was able to successfully seat Justice Anne Patterson, a Republican who cleared the Senate in 2011, in another open spot. But Wallace's seat, and one for retiring Justice Virginia Long, remain open after Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the governor's two nominees in historic 2012 votes. Now, hearings for the two new nominees the governor named late last year are pending. Meanwhile, key issues such as school funding and affordable housing remain before the court.

Social issues: Christie has clearly made his mark. The governor rejected a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage last year. An abortion opponent, he cut funding for women's health programs and eliminated state money for Planned Parenthood, an agency that offers the procedure. He used his executive authority to rewrite the state's medical marijuana law, making it much tougher for patients to obtain a prescription and for dispensaries to open. Since the law was signed by Gov. Jon Corzine the day before Christie was inaugurated, only one dispensary, located in Montclair, has opened and only a couple of hundred patients have been approved.



Source: (C) 2013 The Record, Bergen County, NJ. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved


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