TRENTON — The legislature’s Democratic leadership, moments after Gov. Chris Christie gave his latest — and final — State of the State Address here today, offered a critical view of New Jersey’s fiscal and economic health, contending the Republican’s mostly positive report glossed over some of the more unsavory problems the state faces and failed to lay out a road map for fixing them.
“The state of the state is actually meant to present a vision of the future, of where we’re going — not where we’ve been,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3). “New Jersey is still in a lot of trouble.”
The governor’s hour-long speech, given in front of a packed audience of New Jersey lawmakers and political observers on the Assembly floor this afternoon, tackled a range of issues the state has dealt with under Christie’s leadership over the last five years, from increased job growth to education reform to ongoing efforts to balance an underfunded public pension on benefit system. It also featured sweeping rhetoric on topics central to the country’s national climate, confirming for some the notion that Christie was using the platform to assert himself on a broader runway in advance of a 2016 presidential bid.
But while Republican legislators interviewed following the speech offered overwhelmingly positive reviews of its content and message, Democratic lawmakers were less convinced, saying in a press conference afterward that Christie failed to address certain realities the state faces. The biggest of those realities, they said, include a depleted Transportation Trust Fund and underfunded pension and benefits system — an issue Christie championed upon first entering office but which has since become a threat to the state’s financial welfare, according to experts.
“Unemployment has improved, but when you’re at the bottom of the barrel in the region, that’s not good enough,” Sweeney said, referring to comments made by Christie that the state’s unemployment rate has dropped under his tenure. “We need a plan to fix the [Transportation Trust Fund], to fix the pension. There’s a lot of things we expected to hear, and we all ended up sitting around and saying, ‘he didn’t talk about anything.'”
“The governor’s speech went something like the state of our state continues to get better,” added state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37). “Unless you are one of the increasing majority living in poverty in the state of New Jersey. We have moved from 9.4 percent to 11.4 percent of our citizens living in poverty. That is part of the state of the state that we need to address.”
Democrats in the room, which included Weinberg, Sweeney, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) and Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (D-32) all agreed that serious work lies ahead for the state, and that Christie focused too much on the state’s past victories in an effort to play up his image in front of a national audience. Asked why he thought the governor’s speech contained so much talk about the country’s economic and social challenges, Sweeney answered bluntly that it was because Christie “is running for president.”
Not all were as harsh as that, however. Greenwald, in a series of comments that almost seemed meant for a state of the state address itself, did note a number of positives in Christie’s speech, including progress made in a long-embattled Camden. But he ultimately said that too many of the state’s problems elsewhere have been left to languish.
“My friends that are standing with me today worked very hard in a state where too many people look at and talk about the divide between the north and the south,” Greenwald, who hails from a South Jersey district brokered by Democratic boss George Norcross III, said. “My friends in North Jersey, including Vinnie Prieto and Loretta Weinberg, stood with us to understand the crisis that Camden City faces, and in a bi-partisan effort with the governor, we did take a city that was one of the poorest in the state, had the highest murder rate in the state … and tore down a system that was broken to revitalize that city.”
“The problem is there’s not enough of that,” he added.
Earlier, Sweeney welcomed the “New Jersey press core” in a clear jab at the governor, who held an off-the-record meeting exclusively for members of the national press prior to today’s address.