Christie speech expected to focus on Sandy; Democrat blasts back

Gov. Christie before his 2011 address. "His jobs packageis a hurricane," Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Monday, then apologized.
Gov. Christie before his 2011 address. "His jobs packageis a hurricane," Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Monday, then apologized. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 09, 2013

TRENTON - Gov. Christie will focus Tuesday's State of the State speech on rebuilding towns damaged by Hurricane Sandy, a storm that pushed the well-exposed Republican governor further into the national spotlight and brought him bipartisan praise.

But New Jersey Democrats were clear Monday that they hold him responsible for the economic doldrums the state had fallen into before Sandy: a 9.6 percent unemployment rate and the country's second-highest foreclosure rate.

Tax collections were behind by $251 million when the storm hit Oct. 29. Now, the state is running a $700 million shortfall in its $31.7 billion budget, a gap that could reach $2 billion when the fiscal year ends June 30, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

Reconstruction of Shore towns and federal aid could boost tax collections and lower unemployment. But Democrats, who control both legislative chambers, said they did not want Christie to take credit for improvements.

"His jobs package is a hurricane. I guess he prayed a lot and got lucky that a storm came," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said at a Trenton news conference Monday.

Sweeney immediately apologized for the comment, but did not back off his argument, saying that Christie vetoed dozens of job-creation bills and that the state's unemployment rate was virtually the same as when Christie took office in 2010.

"So, when the governor talks about that the focus is solely going to be on Sandy . . . his jobs package is a natural disaster," he said. "We shouldn't . . . hope that a storm has to come along to put this state back in a better position."

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said he was "shocked" by Sweeney's comments.

"No one 'prayed' for what New Jersey has endured," Drewniak said in a statement Monday.

Sweeney, in a statement, later clarified his comments, saying Christie was using the storm to "paper over his failure to lead on issues such as job creation, economic growth, women's issues, health care, and housing."

The governor has achieved some of the goals he laid out in last year's State of the State speech, including a law that considers student performance when awarding tenure to public school teachers.

But Christie failed to deliver on his pledge to cut taxes. Legislative leaders, citing lower-than-expected tax collections, said the state could not afford Christie's proposed 10 percent income-tax cut or the property-tax rebate plan he negotiated with Sweeney. Both would have cost more than $1 billion when fully implemented by fiscal 2016.

Lawmakers set aside the $183 million needed for the first year of the tax-cut plan, but said they would authorize a tax cut only if the state met the administration's ambitious revenue-growth estimate of 7.2 percent.

Revenue has fallen short every month since the budget took effect July 1.

In a Nov. 28 news conference, Christie argued that the Legislature should have passed his tax cut despite the current shortfalls, arguing that it could have helped to stimulate the economy. But he also acknowledged that depending on what happens in the coming months, he may have to make budget cuts.

Sweeney said Christie's argument made no sense.

"That's like saying 'You should have spent the money, so I'd have to cut bigger holes,' " he said Monday.

Christie won a partial victory on teacher tenure, signing into law in August a bill that makes it harder to achieve and maintain for public school teachers. But the Legislature refused to heed Christie's call to abolish the "last in, first out" seniority rule that affects young teachers during layoffs.

Under the new law, teachers must now work for at least four years before they can be considered for tenure, an increase from the previous three-year requirement. Educators also must receive favorable annual reviews that would be based partly on student test performance. Any teacher could be fired after two poor reviews.

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