New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will deliver a highly-anticipated budget address on Tuesday, an event that will be largely viewed through the lens of a potential 2016 run even as the finances of Christie’s state are in turmoil.
The speech gives the Republican an opportunity to propose solutions to the state’s budget woes and provide a platform to demonstrate how he’d manage a government budget if he makes it to the White House. It could not come at a more critical time for Christie, as a series of news stories have slowed his national momentum in recent days. The Washington Post reported last week that Christie’s home-state donors are turning to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Politico ran a survey showing Christie dropping from the top tier of 2016 candidates; and a spate of recent polls indicate New Jersey residents believe Christie cares more about the Oval Office than leading the Garden State.
New Jersey’s finances have definitely taken a turn for the worse, complicating Christie’s efforts to show he’d been a responsible budget steward. The state has seen its credit rating downgraded eight times since the governor took office as financial problems continue to mount.
Christie is facing two major issues that New Jersey lawmakers want him to address. The first is the Transportation Trust Fund, which is $16 billion in debt and will be insolvent come July 1. To replenish the fund, which pays for roads and public transport, some members of the Democratic-controlled Legislature have proposed raising the state’s 14.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax. Christie has said that raising the gas tax is “on the table,” but the national politics of a tax hike are treacherous for a Republican White House contender.The other hurdle Christie faces is the pension system for state workers which is $37 billion in debt – not to mention a $53 billion shortfall in funding retiree medical benefits. Over the past year, the governor has said tough choices and reforms need to be made, and in June the state cut payments to public workers from $2.25 billion to $681 million. Unions have taken that decision to court. Christie has ordered a commission to propose solutions to the pension fund, but has not detailed specifically what he’d like to see.
To make matters thornier, a superior court judge ruled Monday that Christie and state lawmakers must come up the $1.57 billion that was cut to put into the pension fund. Christie’s office released a statement, saying, the decision would be appealed.
“Once again liberal judicial activism rears its head with the court trying to replace its own judgment for the judgment of the people who were elected to make these decisions,” the statement said. ”This budget was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor with a pension payment. The governor will continue to work on a practical solution to New Jersey’s pension and health benefits problems while he appeals this decision to a higher court where we are confident the judgment of New Jersey’s elected officials will be vindicated.”
Christie’s office did not respond to a request for information on what type of solutions he can be expected to propose Tuesday. But at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington last week, the governor offered a window into what he might say. He spoke about job growth and said he was against any effort to hike taxes, although he made no specific mention of the proposed gas tax hike. He also took aim at state lawmakers, seemingly trying to distance himself from some of the state’s problems.
“I love when some members of the legislature say ‘well, you see we haven’t grown as many jobs as possible because the governor’s economic plan isn’t working.’ That might be true if anyone had implemented the governor’s economic plan,” said Christie, according to the Associated Press. He added, “So I don’t know exactly whose economic plans have been implemented or not. But what I can tell you is that I’m going to continue to take responsibility for fighting the fight to make this state more affordable.”
But such remarks blaming the opposite party hurts his image as a leader who has reached across the aisle to compromise — the very image that helped him rise to national prominence, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey.
“Saying he’s been hindered by the Democratic legislation undercuts his brand of being the guy who could get everything done,” Murray said.
The major fiscal issues the state faces — the transportation fund and the pension system — come with big risks, he added. While raising taxes never goes over well, the revenue has to come from somewhere. And if Christie takes executive orders to further cut pensions, which Murray said is possible, it could also be seen as a “cynical ploy to win back conservatives.”
Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer, a Democrat, said he did not know what solutions Christie will propose, saying he has been met with a “deafening silence.” Several state legislators expressed concern that Christie would put his national ambitions ahead of the state during the budget address.
“He’s going to point fingers, place blame and refuse to take any responsibility for the fiscal crisis that the state is in,” said Democratic State Sen. Ray Lesniak.