Gov. Chris Christie is back in New Jersey, his presidential prospects dashed, preparing to outline a new state budget in a speech to state lawmakers Tuesday.
He will need a quick pivot.
After sparring on the national stage almost exclusively since June about the distant, the improbable and sometimes the absurd, Christie faces a bevy of very real, familiar and stubborn New Jersey problems.
What his priorities are for New Jersey — not to mention for Christie — in the 23 remaining months of his term is a mystery. The same goes for his plans for dealing with cannot-wait issues like transportation funding and high property taxes.
Just as unclear: the governor’s mindset and willingness to engage in New Jersey after reaching for the brass ring and coming up short.
Against that backdrop, here are seven questions to ponder as Christie readies to enter the General Assembly chamber at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
What issues have to be resolved?
Some perennial issues must be dealt with because they’re a drag on the state budget and credit rating, such as pension funding. Others are just as significant and will demand resolution in the short term because they face a deadline, such as replenishing the Transportation Trust Fund, through which the state funds road, bridge and rail projects. There’s no money to fund projects beyond June 30.
Christie has sent unclear signals about whether he would increase the gas tax as part of a plan for transportation funding. At times he has indicated he would so long as there is “tax fairness” — typically interpreted as a reduction in another tax, such as the estate tax. Progress on that front stalled as Christie campaigned for president, perhaps reluctant to be seen as assenting to a hike in gasoline taxes — or any tax.
“There’s one cog that’s missing, and that’s the governor,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, who said he hadn’t met with Christie for a month, though they had spoken a few times on the phone. “Until we get all of us together in one room, then we can hash something out. We can roll something out.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he’s interested in phasing out the estate tax, though not the inheritance tax, and exempting more retirement income from taxes. Christie called for ending the estate tax in his State of the State.
“There’s been some bad tax policy over the years, and some of it needs to be reversed. And that’s a recognition by everyone. But if the Republicans need that as cover to support fixing the roads, we really don’t care. We don’t link them. We intend to do them anyway,” said Sweeney.
If Democrats are serious about cooperating, there’s a big opportunity for progress on things like transportation funding and the budget, said Fairleigh Dickinson University political scientist Dan Cassino.
“We’re hearing Democrats in the Statehouse saying that they want the Chris Christie from 2010 back,” Cassino said. “They want the Chris Christie who was making deals with Democrats, going across the aisle and trying to get things done. And that Chris Christie went away when he ran for president, simply because he had to prove his ideological purity. Now that that’s not a problem, maybe we can see go back to making those sort of deals again and really getting something done so he can have a legacy here in New Jersey.”
What topics will Christie want to tackle?
One is connected with pensions: health benefits for government workers and retirees. The Christie-appointed New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission issued a report Thursday calling for health benefits to be reduced in ways they say would save $2.23 billion in government spending a year, freeing up more money to go toward payments into the deficit-riddled pension funds.
Christie outlined other priorities in his State of the State, and more details are likely in his budget speech on things such as creating a substance abuse treatment program at the Mid-State Correctional Facility for state prison inmates and increasing spending by more than $100 million on increasing access to care for mental health and substance abuse. He also called for more funding for three regional “accountable care organizations” to coordinate physical and behavioral health care for high-cost Medicaid patients.
Separate from the State of the State proposals, Christie has also said he would like the Legislature to pass bills this month enabling the state to take control of most financial governance of Atlantic City municipal government.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, speaking recently to mayors at the Statehouse, said the list of issues needed state government attention includes the Zika virus and the court case regarding the tax status of nonprofit hospitals. “We have a lot to do in this legislative session,” she said.
Any chance property taxes will make the list?
Even if property taxes aren’t on the agenda, they’ll be influenced greatly by Christie’s Tuesday budget proposal, which will set state aid levels for schools and municipalities. Details about how much aid local governments can expect will be announced by the end of the week. If aid levels don’t increase, the pressure on local property taxes will. Tax bills grew an average 2.4 percent last year, the most since 2011.
An Assembly committee on Feb. 8 advanced legislation that would restore, over the course of five years, $331 million in state aid to cities and towns that had been reduced between 2009 and 2011. That money from taxes on gas and electric utilities instead stayed in the state budget, even though it is all supposed to pass through to local governments.
The legislation comes with a taxpayer-friendly catch: Municipalities would have to reduce their property tax levy by an amount equal to the amount in aid that gets restored. Jon Moran, senior legislative analyst with the League of Municipalities, urged lawmakers to trust local officials to balance local needs and resources. “We fear that the levy reduction mandate could hamstring their abilities to address those needs,” he said.
Lawmakers declined to remove that mandate, with Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, saying “the money belongs to the taxpayers.” Added Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris: “We have a crisis, as I think everyone appreciates, of high property taxes. Municipalities in this state exceeded that 2 percent cap on average last year, and we want to make sure they get back under.”
Sweeney said Senate Democrats back the bill. “The reality is the governor will most likely veto it, but we think that the money is the towns’ and as the economy starts to improve and the fiscal health of the state improves, we have to find a way to phase that back to the towns. It’s their money,” he said.
How will Christie be received by lawmakers?
Democrats have even firmer control of the Legislature now than they did when Christie took office, with 24 of the 40 seats in the Senate and 52 of the 80 seats in the Assembly, the most in the lower house since the late 1970s. Christie’s ability to move an agenda through the Legislature, as he noted on the presidential campaign trail, is possible only through compromise.
Those Democrats have touted an increasingly liberal agenda in recent weeks, including a focus on child poverty, a $15 an hour minimum wage and mandating that private-sector employers provide paid sick leave. And they’re looking to enact their ideas by working around the governor’s opposition through things like a constitutional amendment mandating contributions to the pension funds.
Sweeney said Christie would be welcomed back by the Legislature with open arms.
“Of course. He’s the governor of the state of New Jersey. Listen, we have a lot of work to do, and it won’t get done without him,” said Sweeney. “Really everything depends on what the governor wants to accomplish.”
Political analysts say it depends on what Sweeney wants to accomplish, as well. He is angling to run for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.
“You’ve got a Senate president who ironically is suffering from what Christie suffered from in the sense that partisan voters don’t trust him because of his willingness to work with a chief executive from the other party. Sweeney’s got issues with having been too close to Christie, so he’s going to be very careful about what he does in terms of cooperating with Christie,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray .
“The political dynamics are this: Democrats are not likely to want to give him any significant victories because they’re more concerned about replacing Chris Christie than they are about necessarily working with him,” said Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin.
John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said prospective future governors might want to start solving problems sooner than later.
“On the one hand, they have, and Sweeney particularly, no particular interest in making Christie look good,” Weingart said. “But on the other hand, if (Sweeney) thinks there’s a serious chance he could be the governor in two years, it would good, aside from the inherent value of it, it would be good politically to have some of the state’s serious problems addressed.”
Will Christie focus on New Jersey exclusively?
Probably not. Consider these lines from his New Hampshire concession speech: “We have much work left to do, and I’m looking forward to doing that work and continuing to move forward our agenda for the nation and for the state that I serve. And we will continue to do both over the course of time.”
In the short term, Christie could endorse one of his former rivals for the Republican nomination. Perhaps a Republican president — “anybody but Rubio,” said Seton Hall University political scientist Matthew Hale — would make him attorney general. It’s possible he will travel the country to help Republican candidates for governor and Congress.
“I think there will be more of a New Jersey focus, since he’s going to be back home and not campaigning every day. That’s a definite,” said Republican political consultant Chris Russell. “But I have a hard time believing he’d be able to sit out the cycle. I think he understands how important it is to elect a Republican this year after eight years of Obama.
“I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t involved in the campaign at some level. I guess it depends on who the nominee is and who he decides to get behind,” Russell said. “But I think people will see him, especially after his performance in the debates, people are going to view him as a strong messenger you can send out onto the trail and be an attack dog. Whether he chooses to play that role is up to him.”
“He has the potential for a national political future,” Murray said. “We don’t know exactly what it will hold, but he’s certainly not dead in the water. That’s part of the reason why he needs to pull out now, rather than later. He can’t afford an embarrassment in later primaries. So if he wants to make a comeback for a presidential run in four or eight years, he needs to pull out now and figure out how he can walk away from New Jersey with a decent enough legacy that gives him a rationale to run again.”
Wait, Christie might actually run for president again?
Certainly he’s young enough, at age 53, to run in 2020 if a Democrat wins the White House this year or even 2024 or later. But political analysts were split on whether it would be realistic for Christie to make another run for president in the future.
“People have come back from bitter disappointment and run again,” said Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy and wherewithal to do it, but if the Republicans are unable to win in November, there’s no reason that somebody like Chris Christie couldn’t be in the race in 2020.”
Hale said Christie has an opportunity to run again in 2020, presuming the upcoming Bridgegate trials don’t wind up connecting him directly with that caper. He would also need businessman Donald Trump or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz to be this year’s nominee and then have that person lose.
“The Republican Party is either going to go angry or they’re going to go establishment,” Hale said. “If they go angry, then I think Christie can come back as the calm voice, the adult in the room, and do that in 2020. But if they go establishment and the establishment loses, then the voices in 2020 are going to be even angrier.”
Others say Christie’s moment has passed. It really passed in 2011 and 2012, said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison, when significant voices in the Republican establishment were imploring Christie, then just two years into being governor, to run for president.
“I think it’s over,” Harrison said. “This is perhaps an unfortunately example for the governor of a person who had an opportunity, and that opportunity I guess he didn’t feel confident or feel that it was him moment.”
Cassino, of FDU, said candidates who suffer a wipeout don’t generally succeed later.
“Historically, when we see a candidate who makes a second try that’s successful, it’s because they’ve seen some success,” Cassino said. “This is actually a very common pattern among Republicans, where the nominee is generally someone who has run before and come in second place the previous cycle. There’s a strong pattern of that.
“However, Chris Christie’s standing at this point has not been good enough to suggest he’s actually capable of that,” he said. “The candidate who would come out for a second chance is someone who actually did better electorally than he did this cycle.”
Will the New Jersey public want to engage with Christie?
Christie returns as a fairly unpopular figure in New Jersey, with job approval ratings over the last two months dipping to 31 percent in the Fairleigh Dickinson poll and 33 percent in the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.
That was driven in part by his extended absences, as well as emphasizing more conservative positions as he ran for president.
“Christie’s also got problems now that he’s lost a lot of credibility in New Jersey because of what appears to be his veering to the right on a lot of issues that he said in New Jersey were simply a matter of cost-effectiveness, such as Planned Parenthood,” Murray said. “It’s going to make it tough for him, but it’s doable.”
“For Christie, part of his soul-searching is going to be to figure out what he wants to do,” Hale said. “Does he want to come back and re-engage in New Jersey and solve and fix some problems? That is certainly a viable option. He can rehabilitate his image in New Jersey; I think he can do that fairly easily. The problem is that probably means things like a gas tax. It probably means things like additional pension payments. There’s some mix in there that may not be palatable to another (presidential) run.”
“The reality is that the Democrats in the Legislature have absolutely no motivation to hand him any policy successes. They’re circling like vultures,” Harrison said. “His political clout is essentially nil. His popularity is rivaling (Gov. Jon) Corzine’s when he beat Corzine, so he doesn’t have the political capital to solve these problems. Essentially he will leave office either sooner or later with a reputation as not a particularly effective governor.”