New Jersey Republicans and Chris Christie said they reimbursed $3,383.79 to taxpayers for the governor’s use of a police helicopter to travel to two baseball games that included his son.
Christie, who has asked workers to give up benefits as part of “shared sacrifice” in cutting the cost of government, used the chopper to travel from Trenton to Montvale on May 31 to watch his son play catcher for Delbarton School, and then flew to Princeton for a meeting with Iowa Republicans. The flight cost $2,500 an hour, State Police Sergeant Stephen Jones said.
“I wrote the check and that’s the end of it,” Christie, 48, told reporters at Saint Clare’s Hospital in Denville, where he signed legislation to require heart screening for newborns.
The governor’s comments today were his first since the controversy erupted. At one point he called the criticism “silliness” and said it came from “political hacks.”
“My initial reaction was to not reimburse because I was told there was nothing to reimburse for,” Christie said. “I do this because there’s a duty I feel to have attention focused 100 percent on the problems facing this state, not the political theater.”
He used the aircraft out of a sense of family obligation, Christie said. “I decided that it was important to be there for my son.”
The Republican party delivered a $1,232.29 check today to the Statehouse for the Montvale-to-Princeton leg of the May 31 trip, Rick Gorka, a spokesman for its state committee, said in a telephone interview. Christie paid $1,232.30 for the Trenton-to- Montvale part of the trip, and $919.20 for a flight to a May 27 ballgame, Gorka said.
Michael Drewniak, a Christie spokesman, confirmed the reimbursements and released a list of 33 flights that Christie has taken, plus one by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and one by aides to the governor. “The travel does not cost taxpayers additional dollars,” Drewniak said by e-mail.
Christie’s helicopter ride and a trooper-driven arrival at the ballfield with his wife, Mary Pat, before two varsity teams, fans and family, drew attention to the first-term governor’s use of such perquisites. Neither the game nor a later meeting he flew to were state business, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch.
‘Don’t Do It!’
“He has been asking everyone else in the state to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and share in the sacrifice of all these budget cuts to education and so forth,” Murray said by telephone. “There were so many pieces to this that should have screamed out, ‘Don’t do it!’ It makes the governor seem that he’s tone deaf.”
Christie joined the line-up of past governors whose personal use of state aircraft led to public outcry -- and in one case, an apology and reimbursement for the costs.
“It’s time to get rid of the helicopter,” said Michael Riccards, executive director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy, a Trenton-based nonpartisan group. “They all get into trouble with it.”
In 2002, the Democratic State Committee reimbursed New Jersey $18,200 for 14 non-governmental helicopter trips taken by then-Governor James E. McGreevey, who apologized. In 1993, Republican Christine Todd Whitman, campaigning against Democratic Governor Jim Florio, cited his use of state aircraft as wasteful. Whitman, who won, said she would stop governors’ use of helicopters, then flew in one for state business.
Pledge of Restraint
Christie took office in January 2010 pledging to bring financial restraint to a state with the fourth-highest public- debt burden in the U.S., $3,940 per capita, according to a report from Moody’s Investors Service. For fiscal 2012, which starts in July, he has urged all stakeholders to accept a measure of “sacrifice” under a $29.4 billion spending plan that Democrats say skimps on education and health.
The State Police’s executive protection unit “provides secure, protected travel by vehicle in the overwhelming majority of the governor’s business and personal travel, except in those rare instances when the governor’s schedule warrants use of air travel,” State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said in a statement yesterday.
There is no additional cost to taxpayers of having Christie aboard state police helicopters because they fly daily for homeland security missions or training, Fuentes said.
Benefit of Office
Using the aircraft shows Christie “in some way has embraced the trappings of office,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Washington-based Cook Political Report. Given his reputation for political acumen and discipline, the excursion was surprising, she said in a telephone interview.
“It’s contrary to the image he’s created as an average guy,” Duffy said. “Many parents may like to helicopter to their kids’ game, but they can’t.”
Christie flew from the May 31 game to Princeton for an evening meeting at the governor’s mansion with party donors and operatives from Iowa, where the presidential nominating process begins next year. The governor told his visitors that he won’t be a candidate in 2012, according to Gorka.
Charging that public-school labor leaders behave like “political thugs,” Christie has drawn fire from the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. It is running a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign critical of his effort to cut their pay and benefits. The governor’s disapproval rating rose to a high last month in a voter survey.
Christie in the past year has limited annual property-tax increases to 2 percent and capped superintendents’ pay. He wants government workers to pay 30 percent of their health-care costs by 2014, rather than the national average of 17 percent cited by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Healthcare Research and Quality Agency.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled May 23 that the state must restore $500 million in budget cuts affecting the state’s poorest school districts. Christie hasn’t said where the money may be found. An error in its application caused the state to miss out on $400 million in federal school aid in 2010.
Many parents can understand the desire to see a child’s team play, yet will balk at using a state helicopter to do so, said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll for Rutgers University, a state school in New Brunswick.
“I don’t think by itself this could make or break his governorship, but it does put a chink in his armor,” Redlawsk said in a telephone interview. “Rightly or wrongly, we don’t want our leaders to be like that. We want them to suffer the same things we do.”
Redlawsk, who came to Rutgers from the University of Iowa, said the flight to a political meeting will cause people to question its necessity. A group of Hawkeye State Republican supporters sought the meeting to persuade Christie to enter the race even though the governor has said that he won’t.
Christie’s aircraft use to get to ballgames could figure in his political future, according to the Cook Report’s Duffy.
“If he runs for national office, this will come back,” she said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at email@example.com