In yesterday’s New Jersey State of the State address, Gov. Chris Christie tackled the thorny issue of Bridge Gate and then moved on to the issues of greater concern to New Jersey residents: taxes and education.
“The last week has certainly tested this Administration,” he said. “Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better. Much better. I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch – both good and bad. Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.
“But I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state. 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. I am the leader of this state and its people and I stand here today proud to be both. And always determined to do better.
He received a standing ovation from Republican state legislators. The Democrats sat on their hands scowling. Nothing will be resolved so long as Bridge Gate is regarded by the Media as a one-sided issue of political payback. No one questioned Obama about Benghazi. The truth about Fast and Furious – the Mexican cartels didn’t get their guns from border state gun dealers from the corrupt Mexican military, who bought the arms from the U.S. government – has long since been buried.
The truth about Fort Lee, as noted today by Bergen Record columnist Mike Kelly, is that it is a city of 35,400 sitting on a 2.5 square mile parcel of land. A local waitress noted to Kelly, “We live with this every day.” According to Kelly’s report, a customer at the Plaza Diner “conceded that his town has a traffic problem, which is likely to worse with new high-rise apartments.” In addition, traffic from towns farther south, also densely populated, adds to Fort Lee’s one-way street traffic nightmares.
The next question for the Bergen Record’s intrepid reporters to ask is when did Fort Lee request the two additional lanes onto the bridge, when did they receive them, and what was expected of Fort Lee in return for this “favor”? Once commuters enter onto the toll plaza, they are literally “right there,” as it were, in contention with the other eastbound commuters to get through the tolls and onto the three-lane lower level of the GW.
Nonplussed by the controversy, Christie continued with his State of the State address.
“Now I come before you once again to report on the state of our state,” he continued. “And today, the state of the state is good, and getting better. Four years ago, we were in the throes of economic crisis. Today, our unemployment rate is 7.8 percent, the lowest in 5 years.”
He sounded optimistic. But if you drive through northern New Jersey, you see far too many shuttered stores and businesses.
“Four years ago, we were losing jobs. Today, we have gained 70,000 jobs in the last year alone, and a total of 156,000 in the last four years. Four years ago, wealth and jobs were leaving the state. Today, personal income for New Jerseyans is at an all-time high, and we are attracting new companies.
“And that has brought jobs – four straight years of private sector job growth. In fact, in November, the drop in our unemployment rate was the largest one month drop ever measured. And in the last year, New Jersey had the second largest drop in its unemployment rate in America.
“We could have chosen to go down a path of continued tax increases to fund the state’s addiction to spending. But we didn’t. We held the line against any new taxes, and brought spending in the current fiscal year to a level below Fiscal 2008 – six years ago.
“We could have let state government grow, even while the private sector shrank. But we didn’t. Today, there are 6,000 fewer state employees than four years ago, but over 155,000 more private sector employees.
“We improved our business climate, and today, by every measure, business confidence in New Jersey is up. In fact, one national magazine ranked New Jersey among the top 5 states with the most improved business climates in America.
“It’s no accident how we got to this place today. We chose the way. And in this new year and in the next four years, we need to build on this momentum by creating a new attitude: we need to create an attitude of choice. It is not about choosing everything; it is not about saying yes to everyone; it is about setting our priorities and choosing to invest in New Jersey where it matters and to put in place the reforms and reductions that make it possible.”
The governor went on to talk about postponing increases to public sector unions and lengthening the school day for New Jersey schoolchildren, to make them competitive globally.
“And the best part of our turnaround in these past four years is because we have chosen to work together. These are our achievements. Four balanced budgets. Passed with bipartisan support. Pension reform and tenure reform. Passed with bipartisan support. A cap on property taxes. Passed with bipartisan support. We acted and we acted together.”
That doesn’t sit too well with New Jersey’s suburban tax payers. But talk of capping property taxes is enough to ameliorate even the most committed Conservative. We are a Blue state, after all.
“Even though the competition among the states is fierce, no state has shown more bipartisan cooperation over the last four years than New Jersey. Let’s do it again. Let’s resolve that in spite of politics, we will continue to put our people first. We will choose to do our jobs.
“One of the things that drove people out of New Jersey in the past decade was high property taxes. In 2010, together, we capped them. The 2% cap has worked. In these past two years, property tax growth has been the lowest in two decades. But the job is not finished. Property taxes are still too high. So today, I ask for you to join me in enacting a new property tax relief initiative that tackles the root causes that are driving up property taxes in the first place.
“First, some context: the 2 percent cap we’ve already enacted has worked for a reason. We’ve done it by controlling costs. We accompanied it with reform of an interest arbitration award system that needed fixing. As you know, the interest arbitration cap was not permanent – it is set to expire this April, unless we act. So I ask you today, let us renew the cap on interest arbitration awards and make the cap permanent.
“Another reason property taxes are so high is that our cities and towns are stuck with a series of costly state rules that increase the cost of local government. As the cost of government grows, taxpayers are paying the price. We have worked with the Senate to try to pass real consolidation and civil service reform. We haven’t gotten it done in the Assembly. We need to have an effort that includes everyone responsible for property taxes – the Senate, the Assembly, our Administration and local government to provide local government with the authority to run their governments like a business: consolidate, share services, cut duplication and ultimately actually reduce property taxes.
“When it comes to driving costs, let’s not forget the expensive practice of sick leave payouts for government employees. Sick time should be used when you’re sick. If you’re lucky enough to be healthy, that’s your reward. Sick leave has been abused too many times, and the cost is real. Almost a billion dollars in liability facing New Jersey towns – $880 million to be exact. And it will only get higher if the system is not fixed. These reforms are common sense: let’s lift this billion dollar albatross off the necks of New Jersey’s towns. Let’s together enact the zero means zero plan.
“Our pension system is burdened by some who collect disability retirement because they claim they are ‘totally and permanently disabled,’ but who are now working full-time. So we’ve established by Executive Order a special unit to prosecute pension fraud. Let’s go even further to solidify our pension system and reduce costs by reforming our disability retirement system to end this fraud and abuse. This will also help us to reduce property taxes.
As far as we know, no money changed hands over the GW. Just a political favor that didn’t come through, evidently. Talk about reforming the public sector pension system is what fries the Democrats’ eggs and make them seek red-herring e-mails that probably don’t exist, and what’s more, waste taxpayer money in this payback-for-the-payback witch hunt.
Christie went on to discuss our failing urban schools and the concomitant crime rate.
“What have we not finished?” he asked rhetorically. “Almost two years ago, I announced a proposed constitutional amendment to modify the right to bail in New Jersey.
“The concept is simple: New Jersey courts should have the right to keep dangerous criminals off the streets and in jail until trial. Why is this important? A study by the federal government’s Justice Department found that one-third of defendants released before trial ended up being charged with some type of pre-trial misconduct. One-sixth were arrested for a new offense – and half of those were felonies.
“The federal government allows a violent criminal who is a danger to the community to be held without bail. New Jersey law does not. This must change. How can we justify exposing our citizens to the risk of violent crime at the hands of those, already in custody, who we know are disposed to commit it? There is no justification for that. Let us mirror federal law. Pass bail reform now.
“In the past few years, we have made progress in reducing crime in New Jersey. Over the past decade, violent crime is down 16 percent both across New Jersey, and in our 15 largest urban centers. And the state’s prison population is down 20 percent since 1999.
“But we can do better, and we must. Those 15 urban centers still account for more than half of all the violent crime in New Jersey, despite representing only 18 percent of the state’s population.
“For too long, Camden has been one of the most dangerous cities in New Jersey, and in America.
“The ability to put police on the street was constrained by tight budgets, low morale, and an absentee rate that sometimes reached 30 percent. Under an agreement that this Administration signed with the City of Camden and Camden County, we have regionalized the police force.
“A police force of slightly more than 200 that was sharply reduced in response to budget cuts is now being beefed up to 400 county police officers. Last year, the homicide rate was down, and the crime rate was down – by over 20 percent.
“The battle is far from won. But under Mayor Dana Redd, Police Chief Scott Thomson, and Jose Cordero, who helped decrease crime in East Orange by 75 percent, Camden is using a new approach – using technology to predict crime, and engaging the community.”
Christie spoke to the concerns nearest to the heart of New Jersey. That is why his approval ratings have remained constant, despite a four-month scandal over a four-day, four-hours-a-day traffic jam at the approach to the George Washington Bridge from traffic-challenged, over-populated Fort Lee and vicinity.
He did not address the obvious solution to the Fort Lee traffic jam: a PATH station between Washington Heights and Fort Lee, with stops north from Teaneck to possibly Alpine, and south from Fort Lee to North Bergen. The project will be costly and Christie will balk at the expense. But the residents of those cities and towns may be prevailed upon to bear the greater part of the tax burden (they can certainly afford it). Residents living farther west will benefit by the building of a PATH station: a faster ride to and across the GW.
As for Christie, it may not seem like the ideal solution. However, he’s the one who’s always using the “C” word. If he expects to be a contender in the 2016 Presidential election, he’d better think over the costs and benefits of “compromising” on that PATH station, and the political consequences if he doesn’t.