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Christie Casts Generous Light On Fiscal Record

By Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — In his appeals to a national audience, Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) is promoting a record of fiscal accomplishment in New Jersey: cutting spending, shrinking the state payroll, and bucking Democratic demands to raise taxes after years of excess in Trenton.

“If we did it in New Jersey…for God’s sake we can do it in the United States of America,” he recently told a crowd at a Republican dinner in New Hampshire, after describing $2.5 billion in cuts to spending and an 8,000-person reduction in the state government workforce.

Generally unmentioned in Christie’s pitch — which the governor recently has been making everywhere, from town-hall-style meetings in New Jersey to speeches in Washington — are numbers that cast a less favorable light on his record.

That includes a total of eight downgrades of New Jersey debt by the three credit-rating agencies during his tenure as the state has confronted successive revenue shortfalls _ the product of his administration’s overly rosy projections and a lagging economic recovery.

Christie speaks of 150,000 private-sector jobs created on his watch, but in job growth, New Jersey has trailed much of the nation.

He touts a reduction in the use of one-time fixes to plug budget holes, though he filled last year’s gap by cutting more than $2.4 billion in scheduled pension payments, backtracking on the terms of a law he signed in 2011 that was intended to stabilize the long-underfunded system.

He has also delayed property tax rebates, which help ease the burden for many homeowners in a state with some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

The governor has also not achieved a transportation plan he announced in 2011 that called for increasingly paying for road and bridge projects with cash rather than borrowing.

All state appropriations to the Transportation Trust Fund now go toward debt service, and the fund will hit its statutory borrowing limit in the fiscal year beginning July first.

Christie recently said the trust fund’s outlook was “not a crisis.”

The challenges complicate Christie’s presidential chances in a race expected to feature rival governors who also have home-state accomplishments to trumpet.

“He knows that once this primary comes up, his opponents will surely call his record into question,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “And we know that will be particularly true with regard to the governor’s handling of the state’s economy and the state’s budget.”

“Every candidate running for president has tried to put the best light on what they’ve done,” said former Republican Governor Thomas H. Kean Sr. “That’s not unusual.”

Since his budget address last month, Christie has pushed for more pension and benefits changes — which he has described as “the last big fiscal problem to solve in New Jersey.”

His summary of his economic record features a dire picture of what he faced when he took office in January 2010.

“I inherited a government that by the second pay period, March 2010, was not going to be able to meet payroll,” Christie said at the New Hampshire dinner. “Imagine that.”

At the time, New Jersey “was facing a very, very severe fiscal problem,” said Joseph Seneca, an economics professor at Rutgers University and former chairman of the New Jersey Council of Economic Advisers. Before the recession, the state had been raising taxes to pay for its spending — and when the recession hit, its income tax revenues fell by 15 percent, Seneca said.

Christie, who had to fill a $2.2 billion midyear shortfall as he took office, “cut school aid, municipal aid, county aid, property tax rebates, and wouldn’t raise tax rates,” Seneca said. “It was a difficult thing to do.”

Adding to the challenges was the state’s chronic neglect of the pension system, resulting in a looming unfunded liability.

Christie worked with Democratic lawmakers to gain concessions from public workers while agreeing to ramp up the state’s payments into the system.

But those plans took a turn after income tax collections missed their mark last spring. Christie lowered revenue estimates for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 by $2.75 billion, also scaling back contributions to the state pension funds for the two years.

New Jersey’s budgeted revenue assumptions — projections put forward by Christie and approved by the Democratic-led Legislature — “have been very optimistic, considering how slow the economic recovery has been,” said Baye Larsen, vice president and senior analyst for Moody’s.

Democrats blame Christie for failing to grow the state’s economy. Last year, New Jersey ranked 48th in job growth, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“What he’s been successful at getting away with for years is…’Look over here, don’t pay attention to what’s going on,'” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “The problem is the economy.”

Christie says Democrats have limited his ability to effect change by blocking tax cuts.

“I don’t know exactly whose economic plan has been implemented or not,” Christie said at a New Jersey Chamber of Commerce event in Washington in February. “But what I can tell you is, I’m going to continue to take responsibility for fighting the fight to make this state more affordable.”

Christie and lawmakers did agree on a five-year business tax-cut plan and an expansion of the state’s economic incentive program.

Critics say the measures are corporate giveaways that haven’t worked, while proponents argue they have made the state more business-friendly.

“We can’t expect we’re going to see the results of a program like that immediately,” said Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

The governor also claims success reining in property taxes, thanks to a 2010 law that has capped annual property tax growth at two percent. At the same time, he has delayed property tax rebates — including this year for more than 820,000 homeowners who expected to collect an average $469 benefit. Benefit amounts also have been cut.

Overall, the state’s budgets have grown. Christie’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July first is $33.8 billion; his first budget proposal, in 2010, was $29.3 billion.

Larsen, the Moody’s analyst, said that based on the state’s growth last year, the 3.8 percent revenue growth anticipated by the administration “will be a high target for them to reach.”

She also points to one looming budgetary challenge — a court ruling against Christie that could make it more difficult for the state to cut future pension contributions.

Christie supporters say that the governor inherited many of the current challenges and has fought for reforms.

“If you forget where we started, it’s easy to ignore how far we’ve come,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.

Photo: Michael Vadon via Flickr

Christie, On Mexico Trade Mission, Skirts Immigration Issue

By Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer

MEXICO CITY — He crossed a border that has fueled intense debate over illegal immigration for three days of trade talks in a country once home to many of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States.

New Jersey Gov. Christie, however, has not talked much with Mexican leaders about immigration during his trade mission here, he said Thursday. And, he said, he has no interest in airing his views — now, anyway.

The Republican governor will talk about immigration “if and when I become a candidate for president of the United States,” he told reporters outside a taco shop, where he stopped for lunch between events with Mexican officials. “Until that time, I have no role in the immigration debate.”

He added: “I understand that everybody wants to start a campaign that I haven’t decided I want to be in.”

Enhancing trade partnerships — not presidential politics — is the stated purpose of the trip, which began Wednesday and has included a slate of meetings between Christie and Mexican business and political leaders, including President Enrique Pena Nieto.

But the trip has been seen by political observers as another inching step by Christie toward a candidacy, presenting him the opportunity to wade into foreign policy on an international stage — even while skirting the topic of immigration.

The governor, who delivered a speech Wednesday focused on energy policy and the need to promote partnerships between North American countries, said Thursday he didn’t consider the trip a test of his skills as a diplomat — or his ability to check his Jersey brashness at the door.

“My leadership style has been portrayed rather myopically,” Christie told reporters. “I have more than one club in the bag, you know?”

While people like to focus on the “flamboyant” aspects of his personality, Christie said, “that doesn’t mean it’s the way I am nearly all the time. So when I’m down here, and in a context where a certain measure of behavior is necessary, then that’s the way I act.”

Accompanied by members of a state delegation, Christie began the day inside the upscale hotel where he is staying, participating in a closed-door breakfast meeting with Mexican business leaders.

After the meeting, Claudio Gonzalez, chairman of Kimberly Clark of Mexico, deemed Christie “a very interesting, informed person,” and said he hoped the governor would return.

“This is just my first trip to Mexico, and not my last,” Christie said.

Next came private meetings, including with Mexico’s secretary of finance — a prominent figure in Pena Nieto’s administration. By afternoon, Christie was seated at a table with Mexican officials in the center of the historic Ministry of Education building. He sat quietly with headphones to hear translations of lengthy remarks in Spanish by the officials, who were announcing a new agreement to promote further partnership between Mexico and New Jersey colleges.

Amid the Spanish, one official mentioned, in English, “the New Jersey Dream Act” — a law Christie signed last year that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at New Jersey colleges.

Christie, when it was his turn to speak, didn’t mention the law as he talked about how Mexico and New Jersey could work together to educate a prepared workforce.

Leaving the event, the governor’s motorcade stopped at a small taco shop, where Christie and his 21-year-old son, Andrew, sidled up to the counter and ordered in front of cooks tossing meat on a grill. (Christie’s order: Beef, cheese, and onion tacos.)

Christie told reporters he was struck by Mexico City’s “extraordinary mix of architecture” and the city’s breadth. “You can feel the history as you drive around the city,” he said.

He said he was fascinated, “as somebody who’s had to work with the opposite party frequently,” by reforms enacted under Pena Nieto, and had asked the president about the political process during an hourlong conversation.

And he proclaimed a desire to listen to Mexicans, who “believe they deserve more attention from our country.” As the Republican Governors Association chairman, Christie said, he will encourage other governors to visit Mexico, to learn more about the country.

At a cocktail reception with the Latino Coalition, a group founded by Latino business owners, Christie continued to promote Mexico as an important partner to the United States, adding that he told reporters earlier to “stop asking me” about the “differences” between the countries.

“I’m talking about opportunities,” Christie said.

But he didn’t silence questions about his positions. As Christie left the room, a throng of television crews from Mexican stations crowded around him, and one man with a microphone shouted: “Immigration reform!”

The governor didn’t stop to answer. “Maybe tomorrow,” the man said.

AFP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky

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