By John Celock
A New Jersey Senate committee voted Thursday morning to advance a bill requiring the state’s governor to reimburse the state for out of state political expenses.
The bill is aimed at requiring Gov. Chris Christie (R) to reimburse the state for the costs of his state police security detail as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination. Legislative Democrats have been taking aim at Christie’s presidential campaign expenses, saying that the state should not cover the costs related to his security detail.
“When the governor travels to South Carolina and New Hampshire and Iowa that is a clearly political trip,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) told the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee Thursday morning. “It is of no particular import for the state of New Jersey. What we are asking for is for the governor himself or one of the political organizations backing him reimburse the state for that cost.”
Weinberg told the committee that it costs the state $60,000 a month for Christie’s out of state travel, noting that the figure includes salaries, meals and lodging for state troopers. She said overtime figures are not part of the figure. She noted that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is also seeking the GOP nomination, is having his political organization reimburse the state for his security detail.
Weinberg also noted that the U.S. senators running for president are not having taxpayer funded security. Except for Senate leaders, senators do not receive a security detail. Under federal law, presidential candidates can be assigned Secret Service details as the campaign goes on, providing they meet certain polling requirements and win primaries. Only Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton currently has a Secret Service detail, coming from her status as a former first lady.
Under the terms of the bill, the state Ethics Commission would determine what is a political trip and require the reimbursement. The bill would apply to all future governors and would allow for a political group to cover the costs, not the governor personally.
Christie has dismissed the bill with a spokesman telling the Associated Press earlier this week that the bill was “another scene in the endless political drama.”
During the hearing, Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Old Bridge) raised questions over what would count as a political trip and a government trip. He asked Weinberg if the governor were to do both politics and government business on the same trip which would it count of. She said that the Ethics Commission would then decide. She did say that she would expect the state to cover out of state trips that are state business.
Thompson also said that Christie’s out of state travel to raise funds for other gubernatorial candidates can help the governor build relationships in other states that could impact New Jersey when states are lobbying the federal government. Christie traveled the country most of last year in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Weinberg said that the governor can build relationships through the National Governors Association and not through partisan activities.
“That’s what the national governors group is all about building relationships,” she said. “Going for a fundraiser may harm relations if the other candidate wins. That is a purely political event and should be covered by the governor who invited you.”
Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence), a committee member, said that she believes Christie’s RGA work was about his presidential campaign and not about relationship building. She noted that Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who Christie campaigned for last year, have both backed his presidential campaign.
Turner said she believes the state should be paid back by Christie.
“I am troubled because we can’t pay our bills. We can’t make our pension payment in the full amount. I know the governor has vetoed a number of essential bills because we don’t have the money,” Turner said. “If we don’t have the money for the state to have essential programs, then we don’t have the money to pay for the governor to stay in hotels and for food and security.”
The bill is one of two bills impacting Christie’s presidential campaign currently pending in the Legislature. In addition, Weinberg and Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) have sponsored a bill that would require the governor to resign if they become a presidential candidate. Under the state constitution, the lieutenant governor becomes acting governor when the governor leaves the state.
Christie is the first New Jersey governor to seek the presidency since Woodrow Wilson’s successful campaign in 1912.
Both Lesniak and Weinberg have been frequent Christie opponents in the past. Lesniak has regularly opposed the governor and flirted with challenging him in 2013, while Weinberg co-chaired the legislative panel investigating Bridgegate. Weinberg also was the lieutenant governor running mate of then Gov. Jon Corzine (D) in 2009 on a ticket that lost to Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R).
Weinberg was questioned if she looked into Corzine’s out of state political travel and she said she had not. She did note that she did not think Christie or future governors should have to reimburse the state for in-state travel, noting that the travel does not involve hotels for his security detail.
Weinberg also said that she knows it is possible for state leaders to travel without security, noting that neither she nor Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) get state police security details. In addition to Christie, Guadagno, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus) have security details from the state.
“I travel around New Jersey without security, though at times I wish I did have it,” Weinberg said. “It does not go with my job description and not with my colleague the minority leader.”