Christie Chasing Career Makeover While Financial Mess Unresolved

  • With a year left as governor, scant progress on N.J. pensions
  • Shot at book-deal glory until Democratic lawmakers said no way

On the eve of his annual policy-setting speech Tuesday, Governor Chris Christie has largely given up trying to solve New Jersey’s mounting financial troubles. His focus now is on inspirational talks about addiction recovery.

In recent weeks, a videographer and audio technician have gathered footage as he visits rehabilitation centers and speaks about his late mother, a nicotine addict, and a law-school buddy hooked on prescription painkillers before his death. The issue won the Republican millions of social-media hits during his failed presidential campaign.

Chris Christie

Photographer: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Now, after Christie hit a record-low approval rating and was snubbed by President-elect Donald Trump for an administration post, he has what may be his last opportunity to rehabilitate a take-charge image.

With a year left in his term, he’s up against a worsening pension-funding crisis, which has contributed to a record 10 credit-rating downgrades under his watch and for which he’s offered no recent solutions. Instead, he unsuccessfully pushed bills to let him profit from a book deal while in office and pull legal advertising from struggling newspapers.

“The political roads to Washington have been closed off to him,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey. “What kind of Christie are we going to get: the Christie of the past two years or the Christie that burst onto the scene in 2010?”

Unfinished Business

At a Jan. 4 bill-signing in Trenton to increase government financing for small businesses, Christie said that while “we have work to do” on the economy, he will maintain his focus on combating substance abuse. He declined to take questions from the press, as has been his practice since late September, as the George Washington Bridge traffic-jam trial unfolded.

“There will be lots of people who will write a lot of different things about what this year will be like, but none of them will write about it or talk about it with any sense of authority,” said Christie, 54.

Last year, New Jersey led the nation for residents relocating out of state, according to an annual United Van Lines Inc. study. Over the next 10 years, New Jersey’s employment growth is expected to be 4 percent, well short of the 10 percent forecast for the U.S., according to a study by the New Brunswick-based Rutgers University Economic Advisory Service. In 2017 alone, unemployment will reach 5.4 percent, against 4.9 percent last year.

“This could be a really dismal year or two ahead,” Michael Lahr, director of the service, said at a conference in November.

Campaign Promises

Christie came to office in 2010, the first Republican elected governor in Democratic-leaning New Jersey in a dozen years. He promised to boost jobs, end out-of-control spending and shore up a pension fund heading for insolvency.

Though he forged first-term agreements to slice government workers’ benefits, Democrats have resisted his calls for a second round even as the health costs alone consume more than 10 percent of the 2017 budget, more than double the 2001 figure. On Nov. 14, S&P Global Ratings downgraded New Jersey debt, citing pension funding, trailing revenue and a budget hole opened by Christie’s sales- and estate-tax cuts.

New Jersey, with $135.7 billion less than it needs to pay retired workers, has surpassed Illinois for the worst-funded U.S. public pension system. Tax cuts approved by Christie in October, part of a transportation funding trade-off, will trigger an annual budget shortfall of at least $1 billion.

In November, Christie said he expected no further changes to health and retirement costs while he is governor.

“I’m confident now that it won’t get done,” Christie said on his monthly “Ask The Governor” radio call-in program.

Strained Finances

In December, he signed legislation to require quarterly pension payments, a move heralded by both parties. Fitch Ratings, though, said the law will “have little positive impact on the state’s very strained pension systems,” and can be ignored should an unexpected revenue shortfall appear.

Still, one Christie ally says the governor on Tuesday may tout the measure, along with an October agreement to raise the gasoline tax to support $16 billion in transportation spending over eight years, as examples of what can be accomplished with Democrats in his remaining time.

“Let’s get back to the table and negotiate some other things,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, 63, a Westfield Republican, said in an interview. “Let’s keep going. That’s the message I would hope for.”

As opiate-related deaths have soared nationally, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, expanded drug courts to channel non-violent users to treatment, increased access to the overdose-prevention drug naloxone and funded needle-exchange programs.

While his advocacy has earned him praise, opiates’ highly addictive nature continues to draw victims. The rate of New Jersey heroin-related deaths in 2015 was more than double the nation’s, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

“Everyone has the ability to fight back from this disease, but we have to give them the tools to do it,” Christie said at a December vigil in Trenton.

Brian Murray, his spokesman, said a videographer recorded the vigil and two other addiction-related events. He declined to discuss the purpose, and didn’t respond to e-mailed questions about whether the governor’s office had hired the team, and at what cost.

In recent months, Christie has set aside another priority: property-tax relief that would be provided by reducing the amount of money sent to poor districts. Democrats said the plan would decimate urban school systems. If he pitches the plan again Tuesday, Democratic leaders say, their response will be the same.

“I’d really like to not hear the governor say he wants to institute his new school funding,” Senate President Steve Sweeney, 57, a Democrat from West Deptford, said in an interview. “I would like him to keep his commitment to making the quarterly payments. That would be a good way to finish.”

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