Christie Tries to Move Past Scandal in State of the State
Five days after he announced the firing of a top aide implicated in a scandal that continues to threaten his administration, Gov. Christie tried to move beyond the turmoil Tuesday in his State of the State address.
In his annual speech, before an Assembly chamber packed with lawmakers and drawing wide media attention, the Republican governor promoted the "spirit of bipartisanship" underlying the accomplishments of his first term, while again acknowledging that "mistakes were clearly made" in an apparent scheme to jam traffic on the George Washington Bridge in September.
"What has occurred does not define us or our state," Christie said at the start of his remarks -- quickly addressing the controversy before moving on to policy issues in his 45-minute speech.
He delivered the speech in decidedly different circumstances from last year: Where New Jerseyans saw Christie's leadership capabilities at their highest after Hurricane Sandy, his judgment is now in question.
Christie, who faces investigations into the traffic snarls apparently orchestrated as political payback in the Bergen County borough of Fort Lee, repeated portions of the apologetic message he conveyed during his nearly two-hour news conference last week.
"I'm the governor. And I'm ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch -- both good and bad," Christie said Tuesday, pledging to "cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again."
He received a standing ovation from Republican lawmakers when he pledged that "this administration, and this Legislature, will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people's lives in New Jersey to be delayed for any reason."
The speech was in marked contrast to last year's, when Christie spoke in sweeping terms about the state's resolve in recovering from the storm.
On Tuesday, he focused on a variety of policy topics while reassuring the state's citizens that they "deserve better. Much better."
Calling for changes -- a number of which had been previously proposed -- in property taxes, education, and public safety, Christie said the state could not afford every worthy proposal without raising taxes and burdening the middle class.
He said that an "attitude of choice" was needed to guide policy decisions -- and that the state's rising pension and debt-service costs would demand action going forward.
"The time to avoid this conversation and avoid these choices is nearly over, everybody," Christie said.
The governor, who will present a budget next month, did not propose any specific changes to the pension system. After the speech, Democrats quickly accused Christie of attempting to fund his new initiatives by taking money from public employees' pensions. Christie called for lowering property taxes by enabling towns to share services and ending sick-leave payouts to public employees -- a "billion-dollar albatross" that has been constricting town budgets, Christie said.
One new proposal from Christie would extend the school day. The governor, describing the current calendar as "antiquated," said he is working with the state's education commissioner, Chris Cerf, and would offer lawmakers a plan.
"Life in 2014 ... demands something more for our students," Christie said.
Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University, said he thought Christie had hoped to use the education proposal as a possible platform in the 2016 presidential election to show he was "a Republican who can talk about Democratic issues."
"He was in control of the coverage. But after Bridgegate, that's out the window," Murray said.
Christie faces ongoing investigations in the Legislature, where Democrats in the Assembly and Senate are planning Thursday to create two committees with subpoena power to continue a widening probe into the bridge scandal.
Documents subpoenaed by lawmakers and released last week revealed that Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly had e-mailed former Port Authority official David Wildstein in August, saying it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
The documents show other members of Christie's staff were notified of the lane closures, which appeared to have targeted the Fort Lee mayor -- a Democrat who did not endorse Christie's reelection.
The governor -- who has fired Kelly and dismissed a close political adviser also implicated in the e-mails, Bill Stepien -- also faces scrutiny from the U.S. Attorney's Office, which has said it is reviewing the case for possible violations of federal law. Until his speech Tuesday, Christie had held no public events since last week's news conference. He has no public schedule Wednesday; on Friday, he is expected to speak at the swearing-in of Supreme Court Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina, the only one of his recent nominees to the high court to clear the Senate.
Christie, who was recently elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association, is also expected to travel to Florida this coming weekend to raise funds for Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Other topics addressed by Christie on Tuesday included bail reform -- he wants to allow defendants to be held without bail -- and expanded access to treatment and employment services for nonviolent drug offenders, also a focus of his first term.
Absent from the speech was a call for an income-tax cut, which Christie has pitched in the past. The Republican leaders in both houses, Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, recently voiced support for a cut.
Christie seemed to suggest he might still offer a proposal, noting that he would have "more to say" about taxes when he presented his budget.
Since Christie took office four years ago, he said, the state's business climate has improved "by every measure," while the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest point in five years, hitting 7.8 percent in November. The national average that month was 7 percent.
Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank, said in a statement that while New Jersey's economy has improved since the recession, "the pace of recovery has been far too sluggish and has pushed many middle-class New Jersey families to the brink."
While Christie touted 156,000 new private-sector jobs in the last four years, MacInnes said the state has "recovered just 59 percent of the jobs we lost in the recession while some of our neighbors have recovered more than 150 percent." An analysis by Rutgers University released last month said the national economy has regained 83 percent of jobs lost in the recession.
In highlighting progress, Christie singled out Camden, citing his appointment of Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard to reform the school system -- Christie called it "obscene" that only three students in the district last year reportedly tested as college-ready as defined by the College Board -- and the creation of a county-run police force as needed changes in the city.
"Camden is moving in the right direction," Christie said.
At a news conference after the speech, top Democrats criticized Christie's remarks about the pension system as disingenuous.
In 2011, Christie teamed with the Legislature to enact a law requiring state employees to contribute more to their pensions and health benefits. Increases in those payments were to be phased in over seven years.
"We made a commitment several years ago to fix the pension system. . . . Now to say, 'We can do these programs, but we have to choose between funding the pension system and paying our bills, or we can do all of these wonderful things' -- that wasn't an honest conversation," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said. "That's a bait and switch."
Asked by reporters whether the bridge controversy would give Democrats a better position to bargain for priorities such as restoring funding for women's health and the earned-income tax credit, Sweeney said: "I don't expect anything to change." "Our priorities aren't going to change," Sweeney said. "Do I think his priorities are going to change? No. He's a conservative Republican that doesn't believe in these issues. We think we're standing up for women and the working poor; that's not his group."
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