Photographer: Michael Lee/Getty Images

Fact-Checking Christie’s ‘Better Than We Found It’ Tag for New Jersey

  • Property taxes continue to rise even after Christie enacts cap
  • Mass transit suffers from less state aid as commuters pay more

Chris Christie, with nine months left as New Jersey’s governor, says he’s leaving the state in finer shape than when he took office in 2010. He even created a Twitter hashtag #BetterThanWeFoundIt to tout his claim.

“Facts are stubborn, stubborn things,” the 54-year-old Republican said during his Feb. 28 budget address.

Chris Christie

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The facts he gives back up his assertions. Private-sector jobs are up, while state government is smaller by more than 11,000 employees. Property-tax growth has slowed. The state has committed to spending billions of dollars on transportation and college improvements.

Yet other data provide a more complete view of the state of Christie’s New Jersey. And when those points are included, the picture is less rosy.

Debt Load

When Christie took office, the state’s debt had the third-highest investment grade from the three major rating companies. It is now ranked sixth-highest by one and seventh-highest by two. All three firms have a negative outlook on New Jersey, which means further downgrades are possible.

Revenue shortfalls and rising pension and benefit costs have plagued Christie. Moody’s Investors Service, which handed him his 11th downgrade on March 27, said “the state’s credit profile will continue to weaken as large long-term liabilities grow and the state’s budget is challenged by growing pension contributions in a low revenue growth environment.”

Christie has blamed the record number of downgrades on Democrats who control the legislature and refuse to work with him to lower employee benefits.

Budget

Christie says his proposed budget for fiscal 2018, which begins July 1, contains $2 billion less in “discretionary spending” than the 2008 plan. But that leaves out some of the state’s biggest expenses -- pensions, health benefits and debt service. When those are included, the budget has grown every year, and his 2018 proposal is the largest in state history.

Pensions

Christie pledged to fix a retirement system headed toward insolvency, after years of increased benefits and skipped or reduced payments. He brokered a historic deal with the legislature that boosted worker contributions and raised the retirement age for new hires. The changes, which he said would save taxpayers $120 billion over 30 years, reduced the pension shortfall for fiscal 2010. Then in 2014, he cut the state’s promised payments into the retirement funds to plug revenue shortfalls.

As costs for employee benefits crowd out other state spending, Christie has called for more worker concessions. Democrats say he can’t be trusted and won’t get their support.

Christie has made $8.8 billion of pension payments since taking office, which is more than double the total made by all governors during the 16 years before he took over. His contribution for the coming year, though, is half the most recent actuarial recommendation.

Property Taxes

In his inaugural address, Christie promised residents “a new era of lower taxes.” New Jerseyans have long paid the nation’s highest property taxes, which the state relies on to fund local government and public schools.

Months after taking office, Christie enacted a 2 percent cap on annual increases. That helped slow the growth, though some towns were able to get around that limit because it allows exemptions for costs such as higher health and pension bills. After a 20 percent jump between 2006 and 2010, average bills climbed at half that rate between 2011 and 2016.

Jobs

New Jersey added 60,800 non-government jobs last year, the most since 2000. Still, it took until March of this year for the state to regain all the jobs it lost during the national recession of 2008-2009. The nation as a whole had done so in May 2014.

From 2010 to 2016, the state had its biggest losses in manufacturing, with 8 percent fewer positions in an industry that tends to hire full-time employees with national average earnings of $26.35 an hour. High-paying, full-time employment also dropped in the information and finance industries. Though lucrative construction jobs posted a 13 percent increase, they tend to fluctuate by contract. Even with transportation projects on the way, Rutgers University economists in November predicted higher New Jersey unemployment over 24 months.

New Jersey’s most robust growth from 2010 through 2016 was in clerical, security and cleaning jobs, with a 20 percent gain. Nationally, those workers typically are part time earning less than $20 an hour. Jobs in retail, nursing homes, hotels and restaurants -- part time, and relatively low paying -- also increased.

Transportation

New Jersey is investing $16 billion over eight years to improve roads, bridges, tunnels and railways, thanks to a deal reached between Christie and lawmakers in October. Christie, who campaigned for president on his opposition to tax increases, agreed to a 23-cents-per-gallon boost in the gasoline tax as part of the agreement, in exchange for “tax fairness” cuts elsewhere. Those reductions will cost the state budget $8.4 billion over eight years, according to Fitch.

Meanwhile, the finances of New Jersey Transit, the state’s mass-transit operator, are shaky. As more passengers than ever ride the trains and buses, Christie has cut an annual state subsidy for the agency and diverted $2.94 billion in capital funding to day-to-day operations. Riders are paying more, thanks to two fare increases since he took office in 2010, while dealing with more crowding and delays. Last year, New Jersey Transit logged the most accidents among the 10 biggest U.S. commuter railroads, including its first fatal crash in two decades.

— With assistance by Dave Merrill

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