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Christie Agenda Hampered as Former Democratic Allies Turn on Him.

To push his first-term agenda, Republican Governor Chris Christie had no greater booster than Senate President Stephen Sweeney, New Jersey’s top-ranking elected Democrat.

When Christie wanted to make state workers contribute more toward pensions and benefits, Sweeney, an ironworkers union organizer, stepped up with a bill. To drum up voter support for $750 million in borrowing for university construction, Sweeney, who never attended college, hit the campus tour circuit.

Now, as Christie seeks backing from the legislature’s majority Democrats to further cut pensions that constrain his record $34.4 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2015, Sweeney is casting himself more as foe than enabler.

“This has nothing to do with me getting along with him or not,” Sweeney, 54, said in a Feb. 25 interview. “It’s business.”

The chill comes amid state and federal investigations of the administration’s links to intentional traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge. Christie, a potential presidential candidate, is seeking a policy victory to reverse sliding approval. He also is looking for bragging points as chairman and chief fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association in a year in which 36 states will elect chief executives.

More Cutbacks

Sweeney is the one New Jersey politician with the clout to make both the legislature and labor swallow a sequel to Christie’s first-term benefits cutbacks, which included a higher retirement age and bigger employee contributions to health insurance and the pension plan. Sweeney on Feb. 24 said another round isn’t negotiable.

“He’s saying, ’I don’t feel like giving anymore, especially to a weakened governor,’” said Matthew Hale, a political-science professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange.

Since Christie, 51, began his second term last month, Sweeney has soured:

The governor’s inaugural address, the burly lawmaker said, was “long on rhetoric and short on solutions.”

His handling of Hurricane Sandy aid: a “colossal failure.”

On another Christie proposal, a 10 percent income-tax cut, Sweeney told reporters Feb. 24: “You gotta be kidding me.”

Not Shy

Sweeney, like Christie, isn’t afraid to speak his mind. A resident of West Deptford, a Philadelphia suburb, Sweeney entered public service after his daughter was born with Down syndrome, because he wanted to improve laws and services for children with special needs. He served on his county’s governing board and was elected to the Senate in 2001. He has been re- elected three times, and has been president since 2010.

Since 2006, the lawmaker had been pushing pension changes over the objections of members of his party, who are typically backed in New Jersey elections by public unions.

Christie’s predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, wouldn’t hear of it, telling workers at a rally in front of the Statehouse that he would fight for them.

In the Feb. 25 budget speech, Christie said New Jersey’s pension system is underfunded by $52 billion after a decade of expanded benefits and missed payments. He signed a law in 2011 requiring the state to make one-seventh of its pension contribution in fiscal 2012, then raise the payment each year until it reaches the full annual amount, $5.5 billion, in 2018.

Creative Invective

Christie ousted Corzine in the 2009 election as voters rejected the one-term Democrat’s handling of the economy. The first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, Christie and Sweeney made an agreement in June 2011 on a plan to curb pension costs. Unions picketed outside the Statehouse, while members hissed and booed inside as Sweeney testified on the measure before a legislative panel.

A month later, when Christie removed millions of dollars of Democratic add-ons to his second budget, Sweeney called him a bully, a punk and “a mean old bastard.” Christie told reporters two weeks later that he held no grudges because of the remarks, and he said together they had done “amazing things.”

“Senator Sweeney and I have a passionate relationship,” Christie said then. “When you have a passionate relationship like that, sometimes people get overemotional, and I think Senator Sweeney’s comments of two weeks ago are probably an example of that. We have a good relationship and we’re friends.”

The pension and benefits bill “never would have happened without Steve Sweeney’s vision and his leadership,” he said.

Taking Credit

Christie’s first-term successes were made possible because of alliances with prominent Democrats. Such ties stretch to Sweeney’s South Jersey base and its major political fundraiser, George Norcross. In the north, Christie is aligned with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. The governor worked with DiVincenzo on the pension changes and with Norcross on reorganizing the state’s universities.

Sweeney, mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2017, made it clear this week that he wants credit for the 2011 retirement legislation.

“Let’s get it straight: It was my plan, not his,” Sweeney told reporters after Christie’s Feb. 25 budget address. “I was not his collaborator. He came along and worked on a plan that I believed in because I know pensions.”

2017 Race

Sweeney ceded a chance to challenge Christie last year to Barbara Buono, a Senate colleague from Metuchen who lost by 22 percentage points in November. In January, after e-mails showed a Christie aide suggested the bridge tie-ups in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor didn’t endorse the governor, Sweeney formed an investigatory committee with power to subpoena members of the executive branch.

“He’s been such a close ally of Christie over the past four years that he has to prove himself anew to the Democratic Party,” said Peter Woolley, a politics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison.

Christie, in his budget speech, said the pension changes haven’t gone far enough, because costs continue to rise. He gave no specifics on what else was needed. Sweeney said the governor should focus on improving the economy to boost revenue, not cutting obligations.

“Sweeney saw his political star rising because of the ascendancy of Chris Christie, and that allegiance could carry him into the governor’s mansion,” said Brigid Harrison, a political professor at Montclair State University. “Now he recognizes that his alliance with Christie is detrimental. Over the next several years he’s going to make every effort to distance himself.”

Sweeney in recent months has adapted some of Christie’s public-relations strategy. Christie has his town-hall meetings; Sweeney this month started touring towns to draw attention to Sandy victims’ troubles.

Once a month, the governor hears from voters during an hour-long radio call-in show. In December, Sweeney began weekly “Twitter Thursdays,” using his social-media account to answer questions. He has about 2,500 followers; Christie has 439,000.

In a Dec. 12 exchange, one user asked who would be the victor in a Sweeney-Christie arm-wresting match. Sweeney, with apologies to the governor, said, “It’s only a competition if the other guy has a chance.”


© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

NJ Property Tax Burden Soars 13 Under Chris Christie — AP.

The net household property tax burden in New Jersey rose 13 percent during Gov. Chris Christie‘s first three years in office — a number that reflects both his success in reining in local government spending and his inability to restore a relief program that was gutted by his predecessor during the Great Recession, an Associated Press analysis of tax data has found.

The growth is only slightly lower than it was in the last three years of Democrat Jon Corzine‘s time as governor, when the net tax bill went up 15 percent.

But it reflects a different approach: Christie, a Republican, has gone further to force local governments to keep costs down — and give them help doing it. Corzine also tried to control local government costs but did much of his work on trying to control taxes by expanding a rebate program, which he then cut.

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Christie’s approach differs from what he said on the campaign trail in 2009 when he unseated Corzine. Then, he pledged to control costs and to restore some of the relief programs that Corzine scaled back. Now that he is seeking re-election, this time against Democrat Barbara Buono, Christie is emphasizing how his policies have controlled costs.

Buono says that as governor, she would raise the income tax on high earners to bring back a bigger rebate program. “It’s about what families are seeing in the bill and what they’re paying every month,” said her campaign spokesman, David Turner, “Right now, they’re paying more.”

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, said the governor’s views in 2009 represented his vision, not necessarily what he could accomplish in four years. He also said Christie found the state budget in much worse shape than expected, requiring him to reset priorities.

If re-elected, Christie intends to keep pushing to control school and local government spending and to offer taxpayers direct relief in areas where the Democrat-controlled Legislature has not gone along. “At present, we think there is still unfinished business,” he said.

The gubernatorial campaigns have used different and simpler analyses of tax growth, each to its own advantage.

The Christie campaign has focused largely on the property tax cap without mentioning that the real cost to taxpayers has risen faster than the bills.

Buono’s campaign, on the other hand, has cited calculations that incorporate only the big tax rebate and credit program, making it appear that the average bottom-line property tax liability has risen more than it has.

The AP used records from 2006 to 2012 on statewide property tax levies and all the state’s property tax relief programs to calculate the average net property tax bill. The aid programs range from the narrowly focused, such as one that pays disabled veterans’ property taxes, to the general, including one that knocks at least $50 off the income tax bill for anyone who pays property taxes or rent. Some of the numbers used in the calculations came from estimates for 2012 provided by the state Treasury Department rather than final numbers.

While any broad-brush way of looking at taxes has its limitations, this approach attempts to show what has actually happened to tax liabilities.

New Jersey officials have taken some steps over the years to try to lessen the tax burden, but homeowners continue to shoulder the highest property taxes in the nation, with an average assessed house value of just under $300,000.

The average property tax bill for owners of homes and apartment buildings last year was $8,100, up from $7,500 in 2009. The net cost after the relief programs was $7,600, up from $6,800.

Property taxes fund local government and New Jersey’s relatively high-performing public schools, which account for the biggest share of the bill.

An income tax was introduced in 1976 with the intent of funding schools and property tax relief programs for homeowners. Elected officials have also tinkered endlessly with those relief programs.

Corzine imposed a 4 percent cap on property tax growth, though it had several exemptions.

And during his last two years in office, as the economy was sinking fast, he scaled back property tax relief to help balance the budget.

By the time he left office, non-senior citizen, non-disabled homeowners making more than $75,000 lost their rebates. In 2008, those making $75,000 to $150,000 had received rebates averaging around $1,000. Corzine also barred households bringing in more than $250,000 from deducting property taxes from their earnings on state income-tax forms.

Enter Christie, who in his campaign to unseat Corzine focused largely on taxes and blasted the incumbent for cutting the rebates as the economy faltered and people needed the money the most.

Christie promised to slow the growth of property tax bills — and he did by capping how much they could grow and passing cost-saving laws that have helped local governments comply. He also said he would restore the slashed property tax relief, though he said he might not be able to do it right away and did not promise a specific level that the rebates would be.

When Christie took office in 2010, the economy was still on the ropes and the state revenue outlook was not good — worse than he was led to believe, he often says.

A higher income tax rate on high earners had expired and Christie refused to bring it back, despite lawmakers’ efforts to do so. The federal economic stimulus money that Corzine had relied on to balance his last budget had also run out. Things were so bleak that Christie made major midyear cuts to the budget that had been adopted under Corzine.

The deductions for higher earners — worth a maximum of $897 — returned in his first budget.

He also overhauled the rebate program, replacing checks that had been sent to taxpayers with credits applied to bills. The state did not issue any of the credits in 2010 and delayed this year’s. The credits have never been returned for non-seniors with incomes over $75,000.

For senior citizens earning under $150,000 and non-seniors with incomes under $75,000, the benefit has increased gradually under Christie but still remains well under the rates in 2007, when the rebate program was at its largest.

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The AP’s analysis found that the average net property tax obligation in 2012 was 31 percent higher than in 2007. For those cut from the program altogether, the increase has been even greater.

The Christie administration says focusing on those numbers minimize the governor’s property tax relief accomplishments.

The governor signed a law capping property tax growth at 2 percent per year — and with fewer exceptions than Corzine’s 4 percent cap.

To ease spending pressures on towns, he also achieved a major breakthrough when he got a Democrat-run Legislature to go along with an overhaul of pension and health insurance for one of the party’s main constituencies, public-sector employees.

His administration says that action will save local governments $900 million over its first three years and will save increasing amounts each year.

The governor did agree last year to plan for an income tax reduction based on the amount of residents’ property taxes, a variation on the rebate and credit programs. But the Legislature balked, saying the state couldn’t afford it. Christie, meanwhile, has rejected Democrats’ calls to increase income taxes on high-wage earners to pay for property tax relief for people who make less.

Christie is continuing to push for a version of the tax cut and for more controls on local spending, including not letting government employees get paid for unused sick time when they leave and offering incentives for communities to share more services.

David Rousseau, a state treasurer under Corzine who now works at the liberal New Jersey Policy Perspective, said he believes Christie has focused on controlling government spending not because it’s inherently better but because tight budgets haven’t given him enough money to do more with direct relief programs.

But Charles Steindel, the chief economist at the state’s Treasury Department, said Christie has also made a philosophical choice that could potentially lower taxes for years to come. “If you want to address the problem, it’s better to deal with the ultimate driver, which is the cost side,” he said.

© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

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