TRENTON — Red in the face and crusading against what he called a “revisionist history” of the state and its economy, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) delivered a sweeping condemnation of Gov. Chris Christie’s leadership at home and his “misguided priorities” abroad during a press conference in the statehouse this afternoon.
“The nonsense tweets, the accusations that are false, don’t ever let the truth get in the way,” Sweeney said. “You know, it’s enough. It’s enough now.”
Sweeney, raising his voice at times during the presser, suggested Christie has been sacrificing the state’s economic health for his future political ambitions. The leading Democrat slammed the governor for not working closely enough with members of the legislature on issues like pension reform and ongoing fiscal problems — arguing that Christie has “mislead” the public on both fronts, particularly when it comes to talk about Democrats’ plan for instituting a millionaires tax to shore up the state’s budget.
“He’s constantly looking to blame someone else, he’s pointing fingers, he’s trying to redirect,” Sweeney said. “Here’s the facts. The governor said 10,000 millionaires left the state last year. We’re third in the country in millionaires. We haven’t lost any.”
Sweeney’s comments come as the legislature works to formulate a balanced budget this year, one that addresses problems like the underfunded pension system and Transportation Trust Fund. Solutions to the problems have fallen along party lines among lawmakers, with many Democrats proposing tax hikes — mainly in the form of a millionaires tax — to raise the revenue necessary to meet the state’s pension obligation. Republicans, meanwhile, have largely sided with Christie, opting to put off another scheduled contribution to the entitlement fund and move ahead with further reforms to the system.
While Democrats have yet to finalize their own budget to meet the $33.8 spending plan Christie unveiled earlier this year, Sweeney said it will most definitely included another millionaire’s tax, because that’s “the only option.”
“This is a state where wealthy people can live,” Sweeney said. “The people that are leaving this state are people in the middle class and working poor, because they can’t afford it anymore.”
Moreover, he said the state would be able to afford it because, contrary to Christie’s own account of the situation — which paints a picture of the state’s wealthiest citizens fleeing en-masse should such a tax be levied on top income earners — New Jersey is actually up 38 percent in terms of millionaires since 2009, with people making over half a million dollars a year up 45 percent.
Christie, for his part, has signaled that he would again oppose a millionaire’s tax should Democrat’s deliver one, setting the legislature up for a repeat of last year’s budget proceedings, when Christie vetoed the provision from their proposed $34 billion spending plan.
But Sweeney also stressed his willingness to negotiate with the administration on this issue, saying the “door’s wide open.”
Echoing a narrative that he’s slowly developed over these last few weeks — and which some political observers see as preparation for a 2017 gubernatorial run, where the economy will likely loom large — Sweeney called for a bi-partisan effort to address the state’s flailing economic position, which he said has worsened under Christie’s tenure.
“We need to fix this state. And instead of blaming and trying to redirect and distract people, we need to fix the economy. My Republican colleagues even, finally came on board with a jobs package,” Sweeney said, referring to the 36-bill package Republicans unveiled last week aimed at spurring economic growth. “They get it. We need to do something about the economy.”
Sweeney also blasted Republicans in the legislature, however, asking: “have you seen any of the Republicans around with a spine to override the governor up to this point? Because they haven’t.”
“If we did just the average, if we could be 25 or 30 in growth in this country, we have $3.3 billion more,” Sweeney said. “There is no pension problem There’s no budget crisis. So rather than pointing fingers and blaming, it’s time that this stops.”
Aside from 2011, when he called him a “mean old bastard” and said he wanted to “punch him in his head” after Christie line item vetoed assistance for the poor and elderly from that year’s state budget, this was likely Sweeney harshest criticism of the governor yet. The timing is apt: Christie has been bashing New Jersey Democrats in these last few weeks at fundraising and retail politicking events as he continues build support for a potential 2016 presidential run.
Christie spent two days in New Hampshire earlier this month, where he rolled out a national entitlements plan that political experts say could be his ticket to the Republican nomination.
Still, he’s faced serious criticism at home — particularly from the left, where party members see him neglecting his gubernatorial responsibilities in favor of an unlikely White House bid. Sweeney, for his part, wouldn’t condemn the Republican’s chances outright, but did say they would be improved if the state was on better economic footing.
“I think his chance would be a hell of a lot better if he had a story to tell,” Sweeney said, adding that the state is in an economic “death spiral.”
“He actually needs to be back here meeting with the legislative leadership,” Sweeney added. “He needs to be back here with a plan on what we’re going to do to fix this place. Because you can’t fix it when you’re not here. You don’t fix anything when you can’t look anybody in the eye.”