The news that Gov. Chris Christie bowed out of the presidential race is no longer news. By now, it has been dissected a hundred different ways, with the what-ifs, could-haves and might-have-beens getting hashed and rehashed by the media and the electorate alike. Rather than pile on, we’re going to simply reiterate what’s been a common theme in this space: The campaign has represented an enormous distraction from the serious challenges facing New Jersey, and we’re happy the governor is returning, hopefully to fix the state’s many ails.
On behalf of the business community, we hope he puts these areas among top priorities:
• Benefits reform. Easily the sorest subject and certainly one responsible for the state’s plunging credit rating. Christie will have to honestly engage Steve Sweeney — who would work with the governor at his own peril, since he’d be compromising on a key issue to public workers and Democrats — and hammer out a new compromise that gets workers to pay even more into their benefits and work even more years to start collecting.
• Transportation funding. Business owners drive here (and take the train), too. It’s hard to make a case that this is a great place to locate your company when your bridges are in shambles and there’s no money to fix the roads
• Property tax reform. This one is pushing employees out of state and companies out of business. Without substantial work to reduce local tax burdens, New Jersey will remain unable to compete as other states and their zero-sum war of incentives continue to slam our economy.
• Urban renewal. Who would have thought Camden would start looking like the shining city on the hill? Let’s be clear, Camden has miles to go. But the state needs to do more to advance its urban agenda. Atlantic City is a full-fledged disaster. Newark is losing momentum.
• Millionaire’s tax. How do we pay for all of the things we need? The state is going to have to increase income taxes on its top earners. The longer it waits, and the more it tries to borrow, the more expensive that borrowing is going to be.
More drivers say they support increasing the state gas tax than they did two years ago if they’re guaranteed the money will be spent wisely on transportation projects and not diverted for other uses, according to a new AAA poll. Drivers agreed that the state’s roads, bridges and transit system needs work, and gave state highways and local roads a fair to poor ranking in the November AAA poll. Drivers and mass transit riders also said their commutes have gotten worse over the last two years. The gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1988. Still, AAA officials admit it’s a hard sell to increase the gas tax in a state where residents feel like they are taxed to death. In a poll of 600 motorists last November, 63 percent said they’d support an increased gas tax. That support is based on conditions that the money is dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund and safeguards are in place to ensure there is no waste, abuse or diversion of that money. The Transportation Trust Fund is out of money to do any construction work, since all of its revenue is going to pay off past debt. A state report last year said that the fund would be $70 million short of covering its debt payments. The issue may be forced this year since the state used up the last of the borrowing power that the trust fund had to finance the DOT’s fiscal year 2016 capital budget. A gas tax increase remains a hard sell. As recently as Feb. 4, Gov. Chris Christie reiterated his vow not to raise the gas tax. Last year, legislative democrats said they weren’t going to spend political capital to move a gas tax bill only to have it die on Christie’s desk. Other non-gas tax solutions include auditing the DOT, reduce the cost of constriction and cut other areas of the state budget and out it into transportation
New Jersey’s minimum wage is $8.38, and if you believe you can raise a family or run a household on $17,400 a year, you’ve probably never tried it. But while it’s safe to say the wage floor needs a substantial boost, a real debate must begin over how high and how soon this hike can be imposed. Senate President Steve Sweeney and Speaker Vincent Prieto have begun the process by submitted new wage proposals, but we have our doubts about both. Prieto has drafted a quixotic bill that would immediately raise the minimum to $15, which would have no chance of getting past Gov. Christie’s desk. Sweeney’s own fight for $15 calls for an end run around the governor, by putting the issue on the ballot and asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment that increases the minimum by $1 a year until 2024. Granted, using the Constitution to set policy like this is not ideal, but Sweeney faces unreasonable opposition in the governor’s office. Still, caution is required when you carve the wage in stone: Christie will be gone in two years, giving the Legislature another chance to raise the wage by statute. Businesses exaggerate the threat of job losses with higher wages, as economists have shown over and over. Legal Services of New Jersey measured what it actually takes to live in our high-rent state, and sets the poverty level for a family of four at $64,238 to $73,371. Using that template, 2.8 million adults in the state are poor, including 800,000 children. Their cause should be a top priority, because these families cannot afford a car repair, the weekly grocery bill is a math migraine, and a medical issue could be catastrophic. And there is too much at stake for legislative leaders to shoot too high and miss.
State Senate Democrats are moving forward-again- on a plan to require New Jersey businesses to offer employees paid sick days. But the bill (S799), which comes up for a Senate vote Thursday, provides an example of how Democrats’ progressive agendas in the Legislature are stymied by disagreements between leaders of both houses even before they hit a roadblock in Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Under the bill, employees would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work. They would be allowed to accumulate at least 40 hours of sick leave if they work for a company with 10 employees or fewer, and at least 72 hours for larger companies. Employees would be entitled to be paid for the full amount of unused sick leave at the end of the year, or be paid for half of it and carry the other half over to the next year. Those aspects of the bill are not in dispute. But state Senate leaders and Assembly speaker Vincent Prieto disagree on one key point: Whether New Jersey municipalities should be able to pass local ordinances above and beyond the state law.
In the eight months that Christie has focused most of his time on his Republican presidential campaign, the problems he faces in New Jersey remain. Some — like the financial mess in Atlantic City — have only gotten worse. After he suspended his campaign Wednesday following a disappointing sixth-place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday, here’s a look at some of the issues that await him back home:
THE PENSION DEBATE
A simmering fight over public pensions continues with problems stemming from years of neglect from Democratic and Republican administrations who failed to pay into the system. Christie has backed a reform plan put forward by a commission he appointed, but Democrats instead are moving ahead with a potential ballot question to enshrine quarterly pension payments in the state constitution.
Christie has called for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax — the nation’s second lowest — but says it’s unacceptable unless paired with other tax cuts. Democrats argue there’s no way around raising the tax to shore up the fund, which is on track to go broke by July. Whether he cuts a deal on raising the gas tax could depend on if he plans to run for president again, political experts say. Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto says he hopes Christie’s return results in bipartisan agreements on the issues.
WHAT HE’S MISSED
Since Christie has been gone, Republicans lost seats in the Assembly in November’s election and his approval ratings have plummeted. He returned last month to work with legislative leaders on ending Atlantic City’s monopoly on casino gambling in return for aid to the struggling resort. Christie helped to seal a deal for a referendum to let voters decide, although that bill is still moving through the Legislature.