No politician from below the federal level captured the attention of the nation quite like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did in 2010. Christie established himself as arguably the most consequential Republican Governor in the country, leading to rampant speculation about his future plans, including at least one draft-Christie website.
But while pundits such as Ann Coulter have called on the first-term Governor to run for President in 2012, Christie himself dismisses the speculation at every opportunity. “I’m not ready,” he said in September. “You’ve got to believe in your heart that you are ready to walk into the Oval Office and to lead the nation, and I don’t feel like I’m ready,” Christie said. “So, it makes [the decision] very easy for me.”
Christie will instead begin the second year of his term in January looking to build on the successes that have made him a household name in conservative circles nationwide.
Christie began working on New Jersey’s budget woes – a projected $8 billion deficit in November 2009 – shortly after being elected. He wrote to outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine asking for freezes on all discretionary state spending, appointments and non-contractual personnel decisions, and pending regulations. Christie also asked Corzine to place 50 percent of all agency operating budgets in reserve to ensure that state departments could not spend more than half of their allotted funds in the first half of the fiscal year.
Despite the letter, Christie took office in January facing a worse than expected $11 billion structural budget shortfall and a $2 billion deficit for the remaining half of the fiscal year. Just one month into his term, the new Governor took drastic action to close the budget hole. In a speech to a joint session of the Legislature, Christie announced a freeze on all state spending and unilateral budget cuts to 375 state agencies and departments.
In that same speech, Christie also announced that the state would withhold $475 million in unspent aid to schools. In so doing, he took a pre-emptive swipe at New Jersey’s public school teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association.
“The union protectors of the status quo will claim otherwise. But once again, they will be proven to be self-interested, and wrong,” Christie said. “We have not reduced school aid with an ax. We have done it with a scalpel and with great care.”
The battle between Christie and the NJEA would become the defining feature of his first year in office.
One month later, Christie was back before a joint session of the Legislature, this time to announce his budget for fiscal year 2011. Christie’s budget plan called for a 9 percent reduction in state spending from the previous fiscal year for a total of budget of $28.3 billion. He announced cuts – some as much as 39 percent — for every department in state government. He called for rescinding a 9 percent pension increase given to public employees by the previous administration. And he announced cuts of more than $800 million in state aid to schools and $445 million in aid to municipalities.
“The gravy train of this type of aid is ending,” Christie said. “Only those who show they are cutting their budgets just as we are, and practicing transparency with the aid, will make the grade for temporary help. If we do not see spending control at the county, municipal and school board level, we will be leaving the job undone.
“So, local governments and school districts must be our partners in this shared sacrifice.”
The NJEA mounted an aggressive public campaign against the cuts, airing ads on local television accusing the governor of “attacking teachers, school bus drivers, and lunch aides.” In the ads, the union proposed tax increases over spending cuts as a means of balancing the state’s budget. “The governor can solve this problem immediately by continuing a tax on the rich — something they’ve been paying already,” the ads said.
Christie countered the union’s tax increase proposal with a challenge: He called on teachers to voluntarily agree to a one-year wage freeze and a permanent contribution of 1.5 percent of teacher salaries to go toward the cost of their health insurance. When the NJEA balked at this proposal, Christie took his case to the people. The governor said New Jersey voters should reject school budgets in any district in which teachers refused to accept the wage freeze and health plan contributions.
“I just don’t see how citizens should want to support a budget where their teachers have not wanted to be part of the shared sacrifice,” Christie said.
In April, New Jersey voters handed Christie a resounding victory in the school budget elections by rejecting the budget in nearly 60 percent percent of local school districts. It was the highest percentage of school budgets defeated in the state’s history, and a stunning departure from the normal 70 percent success rate for local school spending plans.
“[The people have] had enough. They want real, fundamental change,” Christie said. “We didn’t lead in that regard. We merely gave voice to what the people of New Jersey were already feeling.” In late June, the Legislature passed Christie’s 2011 budget, including all the spending cuts, with only minor changes.
Flush with victory, Christie turned his attention next to the No. 1 issue on the minds of New Jerseyans: property taxes. Christie had campaigned hard on curbing property taxes, pointing out that New Jersey is the highest-taxed state in the nation. He proposed a state constitutional amendment that would permanently prohibit municipalities from increasing taxes more than 2.5 percent per year without voter approval with only one exception, debt service.
The proposed amendment would have replaced the existing statutory cap of 4 percent, which contained 14 exemptions that rendered it “ineffectual,” according to the governor. Democrats in the Legislature fought against the constitutional amendment, calling it too inflexible. Christie gave on this point, eventually agreeing to a 2 percent limit – lower than his original proposal – but with exceptions for debt, health care and pension costs, and states of emergency.
At the signing ceremony, Christie was jubilant. “This is the beginning of real property tax relief for New Jerseyans,” he said. “If . . . your local governing body wants to raise [property taxes] above 2 percent, they’ve got to come and get permission from the people who pay the bills. If [they] get that vote, then they get the additional property tax revenue. If they don’t, they don’t. And there’s not going to be anybody in Trenton that can override that.”
Having won a series of major policy victories in his first eight months in office, Christie faced the most serious challenge to his administration in early September. The Obama administration announced the winners in a nationwide competition for federal education funding. Known as “Race to the Top,” the program awarded $4.34 billion to 10 states for reforms in education.
New Jersey was a finalist for the award, but finished in 11th place, just 3 points behind 10th-place Ohio, keeping the state from securing $400 million in federal education funding. Christie’s old nemesis, the NJEA pounced.
“A few extra points — such as the points that would have been available by collaborating with NJEA and other stakeholders — may have made the difference between walking away with $400 million and walking away with nothing,” the NJEA said in a statement. “Now, the big question being asked around the Garden State is, did Gov. Christie just cost New Jersey $400 million in desperately needed education dollars?”
Christie acknowledged that the state’s application failed to provide an answer for one question, but he was critical of the Obama Administration, rhetorically asking whether federal education officials were “checking boxes like mindless drones.” Christie also said State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler had provided reviewers with the required figures during an in-person presentation to the U.S. Department of Education.
When the Education Department released video of the presentation showing that Schundler did not, in fact, have the information ready for reviewers and did not present it, Christie asked for his resignation. Schundler was eventually fired after refusing to resign. Remarking to aides on the firing, Christie reportedly said, “[Schundler] can’t lie to me.”
Sensing an opportunity to turn the tables on Christie and his growing popularity, Democrats called for a hearing on the error. The hearing fizzled, however, when Republicans pushed back, focusing attention on a lack of support from the NJEA as potentially the deciding factor in the application’s rejection. Assembly Republicans pointed out that had the union supported the application, New Jersey would have been awarded the funding despite Schundler’s error.
Christie’s last big splash of the year came in early October, when he abruptly canceled work on a rail tunnel designed to connect New Jersey and Manhattan. The tunnel – originally estimated to cost $8.7 billion – was at the time the largest public works project in the nation. New Jersey’s share of the project was slated to be $2.7 billion, with an additional $3 billion each coming from the federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Critically, however, the state was tasked with picking up the full tab for costs above the $8.7 billion estimate. In announcing his decision to scuttle the project, Christie said current estimates of the tunnel’s total cost were $11 billion to $14 billion, meaning the project would cost the state an additional $2 billion to $5 billion.
“The bottom line is this,” Christie said, “when weighing all the interests I simply cannot put the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey on what would be a never-ending hook [for cost increases]. Our previous experiences with these type of projects and current ones tell us that it will get even worse before it gets better,” he said.
Since the beginning of his term, Christie has been a You Tube sensation. Videos of his frank discussions of policy aims and encounters with his critics, packaged by the governor’s own new media publicity team, have helped make him a recognized star in the Republican Party.
Christie used that clout to stump for candidates in the November elections, with mixed results. He endorsed or appeared with 23 Republican candidates in 15 states, most of them gubernatorial nominees. Christie backed the winners in Governors’ races in Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but saw his candidates defeated in California, Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts. Just more than half of candidates for whom he campaigned were eventually elected.
The second year of his first term is shaping up to be more of the same for Christie. Spending and taxes will again become battlegrounds, as Democrats in the Legislature projected the state faces another $10 billion budget shortfall in fiscal 2012. Christie called that projection fake, and promised to submit a budget that retains all the spending cuts he won this year, and make even more. The Democrats’ projection “doesn’t understand the new reality,” Christie said, “which is I’m not going to approve spending that goes over [last year].”
The coming new year is an election year in New Jersey, as the entire Legislature is up for grabs in November 2011. Ordinarily, that might make for a slow legislative year, as lawmakers try to avoid taking any controversial votes so close to an election. Christie is not likely to allow the Legislature to take a year off.
In his first year in office, Christie demonstrated he is determined to tackle big issues in New Jersey, without regard to his political fortunes. “I don’t care about getting re-elected,” Christie has said. “These problems are too big, they’re too severe to worry about getting re-elected.” If Christie makes good on his promises to completely reform the way Trenton does business, he won’t have to worry — his re-election will be all but assured.
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