NEW YORK (AP) — A defiant Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday shrugged off a mounting budget crisis and blamed Democrats for economic problems in New Jersey that threaten to further taint his presidential ambitions.
“In my state, everything that I’ve had to do has been an issue of a compromise or battle with a Democratic legislature,” the New Jersey governor charged during a Republican Governors Association news conference that also featured a trio of high-profile GOP governors. “I often am jealous of my three colleagues up here who have Republican legislatures. They can actually have Republican policies implemented.”
The remarks represent a dramatic shift for Christie, who only six months ago delivered a triumphant re-election speech casting himself as a can-do, bipartisan leader driving a New Jersey comeback.
Christie’s political standing has plummeted since then — first because of a traffic scandal that has engulfed the first months of his second term. And this week, he was forced to address a gaping budget deficit that could exceed $3 billion over the next 13 months.
The renewed focus on Christie’s economic leadership highlights his state’s poor record on foreclosures, job growth and credit ratings that stand in stark contrast to the Republican governors he may compete against in a 2016 Republican presidential primary.
On Wednesday, Christie faced reporters at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel alongside Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — three GOP leaders whose states boast unemployment rates at least a full percentage point lower than New Jersey’s 6.9 percent.
Asked about the disparity, Christie seized on the perceived advantage his colleagues had in states with Republican-led legislatures, noting that New Jersey’s unemployment rate exceeded 10 percent when he took office.
“We’ve had significant reduction also,” Christie said. “Every state is going to be different.”
Christie indicated he would not step down from his position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association to spend more time addressing his challenges at home. Instead, he announced new plans to continue traveling the nation to help elect more Republican governors — a strategy that also would give him national exposure helpful in any bid for the presidency.
“We’ve got a great story to tell,” he said of GOP governors.
Christie on Wednesday did not address ongoing investigations into his administration’s move to clog traffic on the George Washington Bridge last fall, apparently to punish a political rival. Fallout from the so-called Bridgegate scandal already knocked Christie from his top-tier status among the early field of potential Republican presidential hopefuls. Christie has predicted that the scandal would be old news by the time Americans choose their next president.
But his fiscal stewardship of New Jersey would get close scrutiny as an indicator of how he might manage the nation’s finances as president.
On Tuesday, Christie focused on his latest budgetary challenges, and Democrats pounced.
He announced plans to slash public-worker pension fund contributions over the next 13 months to close a $1 billion budget gap over the next six weeks and at least $1.75 billion more for the coming fiscal year. Analysts suggest that next year’s budget hole could be far deeper.
Democrats quickly attacked the plan, which rolls back a significant change Christie once supported to fund the state’s pension obligation.
The budget troubles have been exacerbated by weak economic growth in recent years as the state’s economic recovery lagged behind its neighbors and the nation.
New Jersey has recovered less than half the private-sector jobs lost during the 2009 recession, while enduring one of the Northeast’s highest unemployment rates and the nation’s highest share of mortgages in foreclosure. Property taxes are the highest among the 50 states this year as a percentage of median income.
“Christie’s economic record has been a disaster,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin. “Just like with Bridgegate, he blames everyone else, but he’s been there for almost five years.”
Christie often describes his fiscal policies in hawkish terms.
He says he has held state spending to 2008 levels, trimmed the state workforce by 6,000 positions in four years and wrested significant benefits concessions from government workers and retirees. He also slowed runaway property tax growth to less than 2 percent — its lowest rate of increase in 20 years.
That has done little to alleviate analysts’ concerns about New Jersey’s fiscal health.
The three primary ratings agencies — Fitch, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s — have downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating twice each during Christie’s tenure. Moody’s did so most recently last week, while an analyst there predicted a budget deficit in the coming year far larger than Christie outlined Tuesday.
“We calculate about a $3 billion budget gap for fiscal 2015, which just indicates the level of challenge the state will face,” said Baye Larsen, vice president and senior analyst for Moody’s Investor’s Service.
Christie has refused to authorize any broad-based tax increases to help balance the budget, swatting away repeated attempts by Democrats to reinstate an income tax surcharge on taxpayers earning more than $500,000 a year or raise the gas tax, which is among the nation’s lowest.
At stake is Christie’s fiscal conservative reputation — a key to a possible presidential run — although one of the nation’s leading fiscal conservatives said he doesn’t blame the governor for the budget mess in a state long led by Democrats.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said: “If you’re on the Titanic and the whole thing’s going down, it’s a little rough to be mad at the one guy who is putting people in lifeboats.”
Delli Santi reported from Trenton. Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton contributed to this report.
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