The New Jersey transportation is almost empty. The roads and bridges need to be fixed. New Jersey has the second lowest gasoline tax in the United States. Chris Christie may run for President. Christie is opposed to tax increases. What is a poor Governor to do?
If you are Chris Christie in New Jersey, you appoint a Democrat to run your state’s transportation department and make him the bad guy, the bearer of bad news, the man with the plan that everyone knows will be politically unpopular. State senate president Steven Sweeney, a Democrat, who will likely run for Governor in 2017 to replace the term-limited Christie also does not want his name attached to an unpopular gas tax increase.
Despite his bombastic style that grates on some, there are other things in the Christie resume that should give one second thoughts about his presidential aspirations. The faux scandal of the George Washington bridge scandal aside, Christie rose to fame for taking on the unions in his first term and exacting concessions from them. He slashed the budget to balance it, especially education. Soon thereafter, the state’s supreme court, restored to those funding cuts to schools and neither party really complained much. The Democrats did not want the cuts to begin with and Republican lawmakers were not going to turn down those funds in their districts. Christie stood back and said, in effect, “It wasn’t me; it was the state supreme court.”
The public pension fund is also woefully underfunded which has led to a record eight credit downgrades by rating agencies under Christie. This is not a record to be proud of, especially if you want to be President. And although the bridge episode likely had some effect, the problems endemic to New Jersey fiscal’s woes remain a drag. His approval ratings have plummeted to 41%- his lowest point in three years. More ominously, less than 40% of residents believe the state has an optimistic future.
There are three options open to Christie regarding the transportation trust fund. They can raise the gas tax which neither side seems to want, although some Democrats in the legislature are pushing for now. Polling shows that close to 67% of residents oppose that option. If it were to pass and Christie vetoes the measure, there are no funds but Christie can look like an anti-tax crusader. If he signs it into law, any potential Republican opponent in a presidential primary would sweep down on it like a vulture on roadkill on a desert highway.
A second option would be to extend New Jersey’s 7% sales tax to gasoline sales. This could be dressed up in the guise of tax fairness, or “tax parity.” After all, potato chips are taxed; why not gasoline? And lest anyone think that Christie is somehow above this ploy, he slipped it past an unsuspecting public last year when he changed how e-cigarettes are taxed. Last year, he also proposed subjecting online purchases to the sales tax. A third option is to slap a fee on petroleum distributors which would then allow him to claim taxation purity. The bottom line effect would be an increased cost to consumers on a needed product whose price nationally is dropping.
When Christie first ran in 2009, he criticized his Democratic opponents for raising taxes 115 times in recent years. However, he has used the very tactics they used which squarely labels Christie a rank hypocrite.
There is also his overall economic record to consider. New Jersey currently ranks last in job growth. While there are 300,000 New Jersey residents searching for work, they are doing so in an environment that is creating an average 600 jobs a month- hardly enough to make a difference in the state’s unemployment rate. Because he reneged on promises to fund the pension fund, New Jersey now has the second lowest bond rating among the 50 states. In terms of a place to do business, Forbes now ranks New Jersey 42nd (it formerly ranked 38th). Meanwhile, tax groups rank New Jersey as having the second highest tax burden in the country surpassed only by neighboring New York. Money magazine ranks the state 42nd in places to make a living. The most recent figures indicate that New Jersey has the 4th worst rate of GDP growth in the Nation and is one of only 6 states with a negative rate of growth. Most ominously, property tax rates have increased at a rate three times that which existed under Corzine.
To illustrate how Christie operates, one need look at how he handled the minimum wage. Yes, he vetoed a minimum wage hike. But then the proposal ended up as a referendum on a ballot which the voters overwhelmingly approved. Surely, a person with the political acumen of a Chris Christie knew this would happen since minimum wage hikes passed in some very red states this year. But, Christie could hide behind the “The voters have spoken” meme just as he hid behind the robes of state supreme court justices when they restored his education spending cuts in 2010.
What does this all mean for his chances in 2016? Any potential Republican opponent would be a fool not to highlight the dismal economic state and business/job creation environment in New Jersey under Christie. His stances on same sex marriage- again, “I’m personally against it but the courts have spoken-” and gun control are yet other areas where he can be criticized from the Right. Earlier this year, he was asked about the New Jersey economy while in New Hampshire. He challenged the reporter to come to New Jersey and handle the economy and state finances. And that was the end of that line of questioning. The bully act may work with reporters or hecklers, but not with potential Republican opponents in a primary.
Chris Christie may be the best thing for New Jersey and is certainly better than anything the Democrats can offer. But for the country, we need an executive who has really accomplished something. We need a candidate who will stand on conservative principles, not just conservative talking points. We need a real candidate, not a hypocrite.