BY ALAN STEINBERG
During this last year of his administration, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will be the subject of intense historical assessment by journalists, political pundits, and academic players. The consensus rating will not be pleasing to New Jersey’s outgoing governor.
The verdict will be one of pervasive failure on both the policy and ethical fronts. Past Republican governors like Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman were distinguished by economic development success, which totally eluded Christie. The bond downgrades served as conclusive evidence of his fiscal incompetence. The pension funding dilemma remains as a nightmare on the state’s budgetary future. The abandonment of the ARC tunnel project displayed most graphically Christie’s willingness to sacrifice crucial long term measures in order to achieve his short term political goals. Bridgegate was, at the very least, an ethical cancer created by the climate of vindictiveness and arrogance of Christie.
Yet there was one major success for which Christie deserves considerable credit. In October, 2016, after resisting any gasoline tax hike measure for seven years, he signed into law a truly landmark legislative act: The Sarlo-Oroho bill.
The enactment of Sarlo-Oroho marks the attainment of three historic goals. First, the enactment of the gas tax increase of 23 cents per gallon will enable the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) to finance projects of nearly $2 billion a year for eight years. These projects will restore the solvency of TTF, solve the grave infrastructure problems that imperil the future of the New Jersey economy, and create thousands of construction jobs. And the average cost to a New Jersey motorist will be less than $20 per month.
Secondly, the legislation also constitutes the most significant item of tax relief to New Jersey senior citizens in modern New Jersey political history. By doubling the exemption of pension income from New Jersey income tax, it will significantly slow the flight of New Jersey seniors to Florida. This will assure a continued strong senior retail consumer business in the Garden State. Indeed, the exemption of Social Security and a significant portion of pension income from New Jersey income tax should help make New Jersey a northern haven for senior citizens.
Thirdly, the phase-out of the New Jersey estate tax will largely stop the exodus of multi-millionaires from the Garden State and the loss of the millions of dollars they pay in New Jersey income tax. Indeed, this is a most beneficial measure in reversing the long range negative budgetary outlook.
This Sarlo/Oroho legislative history constitutes a sad missed opportunity for the New Jersey GOP to become the party of both infrastructure and senior citizen economic enhancement. After nearly seven years of supine submission to Christie, Republican senators and Assembly members picked Sarlo/Oroho as the one measure on which to first defy him. The Alt-Right media and political infrastructure played a major role in causing this GOP legislative action of supreme foolishness.
Yet even more ironic was the fact that Christie’s ultimate act of superb statesmanship came after seven years of resisting all revenue measures necessary to finance the continuation of the Transportation Trust Fund. This opposition was attributable to his presidential campaign agenda. He did not want his primary opponents to have any basis to accuse him of being a potential tax-hiker.
The Christie presidential campaign was a major embarrassment to New Jersey. He displayed a woeful ignorance of foreign policy nuances and a disregard for ethical concerns, which gave rise to Bridgegate. It was not until his presidential prospects had vanished that Christie was willing to embrace measures like Sarlo/Oroho.
Chris Christie is a man of irrepressible and insatiable political ambition. He will continue to harbor unattainable presidential aspirations. The likelihood is that he will be the second coming of Harold Stassen, the former boy wonder governor of Minnesota who came within a hairsbreadth of winning the GOP presidential nomination in 1948 yet made two subsequent futile and pathetic runs for the presidency. This made Stassen, who had a distinguished public career, an object of ridicule. Christie is already an object of ridicule prior to making such runs.
Christie’s immediate goal on the way to his fanciful Presidential dreams is to become the Chief of Staff in the Trump White House. There is no chance of this whatsoever. His antagonist, Jared Kushner, will continue to be the ultimate Trump gatekeeper and an impervious barrier to a Christie entry into the Trump White House.
There is no small amount of pathos in this for both Christie and the State of New Jersey. Christie had the right stuff to become a great governor had he not become a victim of his own self-destructive ambitions. His act of outstanding and insightful judgment in enacting Sarlo/Oroho only tells us what might have been.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.