By John Celock
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) used his final State of the State address Tuesday to tout the accomplishments of his two terms in office.
Christie, who leaves office in a week, focused on his work with Democratic lawmakers, leading the state through Superstorm Sandy, revitalization of Camden, property tax cap, focus on the opioid crisis, criminal justice reform and battles with public sector unions on pension issues during a nearly two-hour long address to lawmakers. The speech featured many of the hallmarks of Christie’s seven previous State of the State addresses including his contrasting the current condition of the state with the conditions of the state when he took office in 2010.
“We need to remember where we were nine years ago. On the brink of financial ruin as a state. More people unemployed than at any time in modern history,” Christie said. “A culture in Trenton of avoiding the tough decisions. Of taxing more. Of spending more. Of borrowing at a breakneck pace. The highest property taxes in America growing at a record rate. We needed tough and plain-spoken leadership to deal with these problems. We needed to care less about being loved and more about being respected. That’s why we ran for governor.”
Christie said that he ran to be a “governor of consequence” and one who would “talk bluntly” and “be different.” Christie touted that jobs have grown in New Jersey and he has been able to cut regulations and taxes in the state, along with reducing state government by 10,000 employees.
Christie spent part of the speech focusing on the signature issue of his early years, property taxes. He said that the two percent property tax cap that he enacted in 2010 for local governments has allowed the state to stem the tide of routine seven percent annual property tax hikes in the state. He said that in 2017 the average property tax hike in New Jersey was 1.98 percent. Christie said that the property tax cap has saved New Jersey residents $18.2 billion since 2010.
Christie also touted the “property tax toolkit” he enacted for local governments in 2010, including the recently lapsed interest arbitration cap for contract negotiations with police and firefighters. Christie called on lawmakers to renew the cap, which is opposed by public sector unions, saying that New Jersey’s police and firefighters will remain highly paid but the cap has allowed for savings in property taxes.
Christie placed blame with Gov.-elect Phil Murphy (D) for the cap not being renewed in the legislative session that concluded Monday, saying that Murphy could have called on Democratic legislative leaders to renew the cap. Murphy said that he wants to study the issue further before making a final decision. Murphy’s campaign last year received strong support from public sector unions, which have often feuded with Christie.
Christie told lawmakers that if they do not revive the cap, property taxes will “skyrocket.”
“Shame on you,” Christie told lawmakers of the reaction if they do not revive the cap.
Christie spent much of the speech touting his work in Atlantic City and Camden, including the state takeover of Atlantic City government. Christie said that former U.S. Sen. Jeff Chiesa (R), who is overseeing Atlantic City affairs for the state, has been able to reduce taxes in the seaside resort, create jobs, reduce crime and bring about new casino work, along with negotiating down state debt to casino owners.
On the issue of Camden, Christie praised former Camden Mayor Dana Redd (D) and South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross for working with him in a bipartisan fashion to address issues involving revitalization in Camden. Christie noted that his work with Redd on abolishing the city police in Camden and creating a new Camden County police force has allowed crime to drop in the city. He noted that his work on education in Camden, including the creation of new charter schools and eliminating jobs in the public school system’s central office has increased graduation rates from 49 percent to 70 percent and reduced dropout rates from 21 percent to 12 percent.
Christie also said that new businesses are opening in Camden, along with 2000 new jobs and $1.4 billion in private investment in the city, and a new waterfront hotel.
“Business is booming in Camden,” Christie said. “Business is booming in Camden.”
Christie praised Norcross, a frequent ally, for being a cheerleader for Camden.
Christie also praised Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), a close ally, for working closely with him on a number of issues over the last eight years, and state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) for working with him on criminal justice reform, which he said has reduced crime and recidivism statewide.
Christie devoted part of the speech to his signature second term issue of the opioid crisis, noting that he and the Legislature have pushed more money into the issue, along with enacting several programs to address the crisis. Christie devoted his entire 2017 State of the State address to the issue and used a 2016 address during his presidential campaign to the New Hampshire House of Representatives to focus on the issue. Christie was tapped by President Trump to chair a national commission on the issue.
Christie returned to his bipartisanship theme by noting that he has worked closely with former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), a New Jersey resident, on the opioid issue.
Christie also devoted time to the recovery from Superstorm Sandy, noting that there was “no blueprint” for addressing the storm and its destruction of swathes of New Jersey. He said that the 2012 storm changed the state and him.
“Superstorm Sandy changed New Jersey forever. It changed me too. No person can see the destruction to lives and property that I personally witnessed across my home state and not be dramatically changed,” he said. “The pain, the suffering and the raw emotion of our citizens made me promise that I would do all that I could to recover from that day and rebuild our state as strongly and as quickly as possible.”
The storm marked the high point of Christie’s eight years, with the governor achieving record high approval ratings and national acclaim, including for his bipartisan relationship with then President Barack Obama in the week before Obama’s reelection.
Christie noted that New Jersey recovered quickly and more cost effectively than neighboring New York State.
Christie took time to return to several of his old sparring partners, including public sector unions, noting that while he put more money into the state’s pension funds than past governors, he was often criticized by union leaders for not agreeing with them. He noted that lawmakers should not be scared by the public sector union leaders, noting that he beat them and that Sweeney was reelected last year, despite a concentrated campaign by the state’s largest teachers’ union to defeat him.
Christie also placed blame with every governor of the past 36 years for the state of the pension fund. Christie said that former Govs. Tom Kean (R), Jim Florio (D), Christie Whitman (R), Don DiFrancesco (R), Jim McGreevey (D), Dick Codey (D) and Jon Corzine (D) had underfunded the pension system. He directly named each former governor and what he said they did to the system.
Christie used the end of his speech to praise his inner circle and his family, including his wife, Mary Pat, and children who were in the audience.
Christie also praised Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R), New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor, who was defeated by Murphy in last year’s gubernatorial race. His praise of Guadagno led to a standing ovation for the outgoing lieutenant governor, who was visibly moved by the tribute.
“She executed her uncharted duties with class and energy and good humor,” Christie said of Guadagno. “I thank her for her service to me and the people of this state.”
Christie closed his final major address by thanking the residents of the state.
“I leave you today grateful, happy and a better man than I was when I walked in here for the first time eight years ago. For that and so much more, I thank you,” he said. “Most of all, I thank the wonderful people of the great state of New Jersey. I came to this job eight years ago proud to be one of you. I leave it next week even prouder to be one of you. God Bless you and farewell.”