Christie Seeks to Move Past $400 Million Education Funding `Speed Bump'
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is pushing lawmakers to adopt his plan to overhaul state government, while Democrats who control the Legislature say they’re not in any rush after his administration’s failed attempt to win $400 million in school funding.
The governor unveiled “The Christie Reform Agenda” in Wayne, New Jersey, yesterday about 67 miles (108 kilometers) from the state capitol in Trenton, where Democrats held the first of at least two hearings on the botched application for the U.S. Education Department’s Race to the Top grants.
Christie and his supporters said it is time to move on from the one-sentence error in a 1,000-page application that led the governor to his first cabinet-level firing on Aug. 27. Democrats, who watched the governor celebrate successes such as a property-tax cap since taking office in January, said the announcement was designed to distract attention.
“The timing of this is because Democrats have finally found a chink in his armor,” said Patrick Murray, a political scientist and poll director at Monmouth University in West Long Branch. “The Race to the Top issue definitely pushed him a little harder.”
Christie, 48, said the dust-up won’t slow him down. In his first six months in office, the rookie governor became a star among the national Republican establishment as he closed an $11 billion budget gap and won the Legislature’s approval for a 2 percent limit on property-tax increases and a reduction in public-employee retirement benefits.
The governor will soon begin campaigning for fellow Republicans in at least seven other states including California, Illinois and Ohio. He is scheduled to be the featured speaker at an Oct. 4 fundraiser in Iowa for former four-term Governor Terry Branstad, who is challenging first-term Democrat Chet Culver.
“It won’t affect me,” he said as he left the reform announcement yesterday. Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, declined to comment on Democratic claims that the release was designed as a diversion.
“It was a dramatic event to deflect damage,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford. “What better day to unveil a package of reforms than one when you’re getting a lot of heat.”
Democrats were dismissive of Christie’s call for lawmakers to adopt his ethics, pension, economic-development and education measures by late December.
“I think we’ve learned from the Race to the Top application that ramming things through based on Chris Christie’s artificial deadlines is no longer a necessity of government,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan, a Union County Democrat.
Cryan called Christie’s proposals “a shiny bright object trying to take away attention from the $400 million blunder.”
Christie is holding town-hall meetings to discuss steps to improve government ethics, raise health-care contributions, lower education costs, add jobs and scale back retirement benefits to help pare the $46 billion funding deficit in the state’s pension system. The proposals range from strengthening laws banning “pay to play” to promoting solar energy, according to the website outlining his plan.
The governor, at a gathering of about 200 residents today in Raritan Township, said he will seek stricter campaign-finance rules and financial disclosure for legislators, and a ban on holding more than one public job that ends an exemption for existing dual officeholders. Christie said he wants to require part-time lawmakers to disclose all income sources over $50,000.
“This should not be something that’s hidden from you,” he said. “Everyone needs to be held to the same standards.”
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, the chamber’s top Democrat, said after yesterday’s five-hour hearing on the grant error that she plans more sessions, and that she may seek authorization to subpoena Christie’s chief of staff, Rich Bagger, and others from the governor’s office who declined to appear.
New Jersey lost 4.8 points in the competition for failing to provide 2009 budget data as required. Ohio beat New Jersey by three points to claim the last of 10 grants. Former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who was fired over the episode, said he made the change that deleted the required information.
“I could accept being fired for that,” Schundler, 51, a former Jersey City mayor and two-time Republican candidate for governor, said in a Sept. 1 e-mail to reporters.
Schundler denied Christie’s claim that he had misled the governor by telling him the missing information was provided to federal reviewers during an Aug. 11 interview in Washington.
“I will not accept being defamed by the governor for something he knows I did not do,” he said.
The loss of the $400 million federal grant comes as school boards are cutting programs and staff and raising taxes amid $1.3 billion in state aid reductions this calendar year. New Jersey property taxes, the highest in the U.S., averaged $7,281 in 2009, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.
The $400 million wasn’t included in Christie’s $10.3 billion school-aid budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. It would have been earmarked for specific school improvements rather than general budget relief, Rochelle Hendricks, the acting education commissioner, said at yesterday’s hearing.
‘Major Speed Bump’
“Democrats will milk this for what it’s worth,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. He called the episode a “major speed bump” from which Christie will eventually recover.
“The governor is still the governor,” he said. “You’re shaken up when you hit a speed bump and you don’t expect it, but you’re still in control of the car.”
A Rasmussen Reports poll of 500 likely voters Aug. 31 showed one-third blamed Christie for the mistake. The same survey showed 57 percent of voters approve of his job performance, up from 51 percent in June.
Christie’s standing may be challenged this month, Cryan said. New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students are returning to class for the first time since Christie imposed an $820 million cut in school funding. The state’s unemployment rate rose 0.1 percentage point to 9.7 percent in July amid the loss of about 18,000 government jobs, resulting in part from town and school dismissals prompted by Christie’s aid cuts.
Republican lawmakers said Democrats’ efforts to stand in Christie’s way will fail.
“They’re going to try to do anything,” Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, the Republican Assembly Minority Leader, said in an interview. “He will return and they will do anything they can to interfere.”
“You’d have to vote him out of office to stop his momentum,” Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, Republican conference leader, said in an interview last week. “And that’s not going to happen.”