Christie Policy Agenda Puts Drug Crisis Before Fiscal Health

Chris Christie will spend his last year as New Jersey’s governor combating drug addiction, he said Tuesday in an annual policy-setting speech that also made an unspecified pledge to address the nation’s worst-funded public pension.

The compassionate appeal to fight a crime-driving health crisis was a contrast from the fiscal-focused Christie of seven years ago, who came to office vowing to “tear up the state’s credit card” and cut taxes to drive economic growth. Now, unsuccessful in his presidential bid, cast away by President-elect Donald Trump and reviled by New Jersey voters, the 54-year-old Republican will devote his remaining months to an agenda that he says touches him personally.

“Our state faces a crisis which is more urgent to New Jersey’s families than any other issue we could confront,” Christie told the legislature in Trenton. “Beyond the human cost, which is incalculable, there is a real cost to every part of life in New Jersey.”

As Christie pushes for treatment rather than punishment for non-violent drug offenders, New Jersey’s unfunded pension obligation is $135.7 billion and growing, surpassing Illinois’s as the worst-off in 2015, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Though Christie in December signed legislation to make quarterly pension payments, Fitch Ratings said the law will have little impact on the shortage, and may be ignored in the event of a budget crunch.

Pension Promises

Christie said in his speech that his administration will make a $1.9 billion payment to the pension fund this year, the largest in state history, bringing total payments to $6.3 billion, twice as much as the last five governors combined.

There is more to do, he said.

“Despite the fact that we have not been able to pay every penny we had hoped to after our landmark 2011 reforms, those reforms have been working,” he said. “I will present more ideas to finish the job we started in 2011 when I present you with my 2018 budget.”

Democratic legislative leaders applauded Christie’s drug message and said they would cooperate with his proposals, including his 30-day challenge for legislation expanding health-insurance coverage for addiction treatment. Some lawmakers, though, said the governor overlooked women’s health care, urban crime and property-tax relief. Senate President Steve Sweeney from West Deptford, the governor’s key first-term partner for money-saving cuts to state workers’ benefits, said the governor only “kind of teased” on a plan for pensions.

“He hasn’t told us what he’s talking about,” Sweeney told reporters.

The governor’s speech, an unusually lengthy 1 hour, 12 minutes, was interrupted when an audience member, the Rev. Joe Carter, appeared to have lost consciousness. After Carter, 46, pastor of a Newark Baptist church, was escorted from the floor, Christie asked for a moment of prayer for him before resuming his remarks.

Christie hasn’t taken questions from reporters since September, as two former allies were being tried in federal court for orchestrating politically motivated traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge. In recent months, his public appearances have focused on addressing the national crisis of addiction, particularly opioid use. As a videographer records footage, he tells audiences about his late mother’s struggle with nicotine and a law school friend’s descent to painkiller abuse prior to his death.

Budget Plans

Next month, Christie will introduce his final budget. It remains unanswered how the state will accommodate a shortfall expected to exceed $1 billion annually as a result of sales- and estate-tax cuts he approved in October to soften the blow of a gasoline-tax increase.

With the state relying on income tax as its biggest revenue source, New Jersey last year led the nation for residents moving beyond its borders, according to an annual United Van Lines Inc. study. Over the next 10 years, New Jersey’s employment growth is expected to be 4 percent, well short of the 10 percent forecast for the U.S., according to a study by the New Brunswick-based Rutgers University Economic Advisory Service. In 2017 alone, unemployment will reach 5.4 percent, compared with 4.9 percent last year.

“While the pundits and prognosticators always see the glass half empty, for New Jersey families who were out of work in 2010, the glass is fuller,” Christie said in his speech. “Much, much fuller as we enter 2017 and we should be proud of the work we have done to make it so.”

Debt Downgrades

Christie devoted the majority of his speech to the topic of drug abuse. He scored a laugh when he said that, while there are other issues he could talk about, the audience would have to “wait for the book” on his achievements, a reference to the legislature’s defeat of a measure last month to allow him to profit from a book deal while in office.

He showed a flash of anger, though, when he invoked the George Washington Bridge matter, which led some Democrats to investigate his administration and call for his resignation.

“We cannot waste another minute of our time in leadership on the next partisan-fueled fake scandal,” Christie said. “While our friends are dying, we cannot permit the worst partisans in this town to lead the discussion towards politically motivated, media sensationalized nonsense.”

Though Christie forged agreements during his first term to slice government workers’ benefits, Democrats resisted his calls for a second round after he reneged on promised pension contributions. Under Christie, New Jersey’s credit rating has been lowered a record 10 times.

Health costs alone consume more than 10 percent of the state budget for fiscal 2017, more than double the 2001 figure. On Nov. 14, S&P Global Ratings downgraded New Jersey debt, citing pension funding, trailing revenue and a budget hole opened by Christie’s tax cuts.

Democrats, who control the legislature, also haven’t furthered Christie’s proposal to distribute school aid on a level, per-pupil basis, regardless of districts’ financial ability to make up shortfalls. Christie has touted the plan as relief for heavily taxed suburban towns, even as it would pull hundreds of millions of dollars from urban areas.

Christie’s emphasis on addiction treatment has included an expansion of drug courts, funding for needle exchange and one-on-one meetings with recovering drug and alcohol abusers who have turned their lives around.

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