RENTON — Gov. Chris Christie called for a “New Jersey and American renewal” Tuesday during a State of the State speech that appeared to hint at a forthcoming presidential campaign launch.
“I believe in a New Jersey renewal which can help lead to an American renewal both in every individual home and in homes around the world,” Christie said during the address, which marks the start of his sixth year as governor.
It is also the first major address of the year for the Republican, who previously said he planned to discuss a potential presidential campaign with his family over the holidays and make a decision early this year.
During the speech, Christie focused on many of his administration’s accomplishments during his first five years, including a one-third decrease in the state’s unemployment rate from 9.7 percent, when he first took office in 2010, to 6.4 percent last month.
He also cited a substantial slowdown in the growth of New Jersey’s notoriously high property taxes, and initiatives he pushed through the Democratic-controlled Legislature to streamline the state’s business incentives, overhaul the criminal justice system, and reform teacher tenure laws.
“New Jersey is better off than it was last year at this time, and it is certainly far better off than it was just five years ago,” Christie said.
But amid those successes, the state also faces several serious challenges, including a public employee pension system that is more than $80 billion in the red, a Transportation Trust Fund that is nearly bankrupt and casino closures in Atlantic City.
Christie did not address the trust fund or Atlantic City’s turmoil during his speech.
Speaking about the pensions, he described the 2011 reforms he championed as a “huge first step” that improved the overall financial health of the system. But he acknowledged that the system remains underfunded and that the state is unable to afford its future obligations.
“This is not just a New Jersey problem. This is a national problem,” he said, noting that his administration has paid more money into the system than any in history, but that the state’s unfunded liability is more than three times the size of the budget.
“That is the nature of long-term entitlements which grow faster than the economy, and in that regard, our problem here in New Jersey is not that different from Washington’s entitlement problem,” Christie said.
He did not mention his decision to slash the state’s pension payments last year to help close a more than $2.7 billion budget deficit, and he did not detail any specific actions he wants the state to take to address the issue, other than to refer to a bipartisan commission he appointed to research the state’s pension and health benefit obligations and make recommendations on possible reforms.
Christie did promise to veto any income tax increase, which the Democrats previously have proposed. He called on lawmakers to take action to lower state taxes, although he did not make a specific recommendation.
“We will not win the fight to keep and create good-paying jobs for our middle-class families in New Jersey unless we lower taxes,” he said.
Christie proposed for the state to take additional action to assist drug addiction, an issue he has championed and one in which he has found common ground with many Democratic lawmakers.
He called for the state to reform treatment programs so that drug addicts or their families can receive information about available help with one phone call rather than having to call multiple agencies.
A similar system also could be created to assist people with mental illness, Christie said.
“This is just smart government,” he said.
Christie reiterated his call for the Legislature to approve a bill to create tax credits for individuals or corporations that provide scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.
He did not mention a forthcoming announcement about a White House bid, but several times he mentioned the national economy and his travels across the country, including an encounter with a Florida woman who was anxious about the state of the nation.
“She grabbed my hand and asked me a simple but powerful question: ‘What’s happened to our country? We used to control events. Now events control us,’ “ he said.
Christie promised he would remain governor and return to deliver another State of the State speech in 2016.
“I’ll be standing here” next year, he said.
Before the speech, the Governor’s Office held an off-the-record news briefing for national reporters.
Democratic lawmakers said it appeared that Christie was speaking to a national audience rather than focusing on solving New Jersey’s problems.
“He’s running for president. That’s what it sounds like to me,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said after the speech. “That’s fine, but he’s still governor of New Jersey, and our issues need to be addressed.”
Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said the speech had plenty of “platitudes” but was “short on specifics.”
“The telling quote was from a resident of Vero Beach rather than Verona, New Jersey. That says a lot about where he’s been the last year,” Singleton said.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-7th of Delanco, said he was pleased by Christie’s commitments to tackling the issue of drug addiction and investing in infrastructure in urban cities. But he said the governor would have to back up his words with funding in the state budget.
“You can’t build infrastructure out of thin air,” Conaway said.
Republican legislators said they appreciated Christie’s focus on job creation and tax reduction.
“The broad message was clear: He wants to make New Jersey more competitive,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-21st of Westfield.
“Jobs are essential to New Jersey families, and since 2010 when Gov. Christie took office, more than 153,000 private sector jobs have been created,” said Assemblyman Chris J. Brown, R-8th of Evesham. “This is a life-changing opportunity for the employees who hold those jobs and the families they feed.”
Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego and Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, both R-8th of Evesham, touted reductions in discretionary spending and investments in job creation under Christie’s watch.
“We are putting New Jersey back to work with the help of more than $12 billion in public-private investment through the Christie administration’s job growth policies,” Rodriguez-Gregg said. “Critical job creation will continue, fueled by more than $2.3 billion in tax cuts to promote economic expansion.”