Gov race goes from abortion to economics

Barbara Buono unveiled an eight-page economic plan today that focuses on kitchen table issues.

She wants to: increase aid to colleges, give more money to students for higher education tuition, recruit more science and math teachers, guarantee sick days for workers, expand tax relief for child care expenses, offer tax incentives for small businesses, create a self-sustaining public-private investment program for cities, and re-start the transit tunnel project into New York City that Gov. Christie canceled. 

This is a significant moment in the Buono campaign, because up until now she has focused largely on social issues, like Christie' veto of a gay marriage bill and his opposition to abortion.

I wrote about the latter topic in Sunday's paper. Here's the story:

TRENTON - Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis was filibustering an antiabortion bill on the floor of that state's legislature last month when her counterpart in New Jersey called her office. Barbara Buono, a Democratic state senator running against Republican Gov. Christie, tweeted a picture of herself calling Davis' office to send a message that she was "proud of her stand for women."

That contrasts with what happened three days later, when Christie's office issued a Friday news release to announce that he had quietly vetoed nearly $7.5 million in funding for family-planning services.

It was his fifth rejection of such funds during his term, which abortion-rights advocates say has resulted in the closure of six family-planning operations, including two sites in Burlington County and a Planned Parenthood office in Cherry Hill.

Because of Christie, they say, the facilities now serve 31,000 fewer female patients statewide.

The money that Christie cut was not earmarked for abortions, but rather for cancer screenings, sexually transmitted infection treatment, birth control, and Pap tests. And Christie has cited fiscal reasons, not his opposition to abortion, for his decisions.

Yet both sides of the abortion debate see the cuts through the abortion lens. So as this divisive issue resurfaces nationally, with several states such as Texas considering or passing laws intended to limit the procedures, Buono is hoping to draw attention to the issue among the New Jersey electorate, which mostly favors abortion rights.

'Blue state'

Buono, who once used Planned Parenthood as her primary health-care provider, often speaks of her identity as a woman in support of abortion rights. She says Christie is forsaking New Jerseyans for a national conservative audience in a hypothetical 2016 presidential campaign.

In a fund-raising e-mail last week in which she chastised Christie for his travels to Iowa, she wrote: "New Jersey is a blue state. It shouldn't be led by a man who is vehemently anti-choice."

And when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last month that would ban abortions after 22 weeks, Buono sent an e-mail to supporters with the subject line "Outrageous." "Chris Christie may not have a vote in Congress, but he is in lockstep with the rest of his party on women's rights," she wrote.

As a young man, Christie donated to Planned Parenthood and described himself as "pro-choice," but he has said his views changed after he saw an in utero image of his daughter, now 17. He has since become the first New Jersey governor in the post-Roe v. Wade era to speak at a New Jersey Statehouse antiabortion rally. And he said this on Meet the Press in 2011: "I'm pro-life. I believe in exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. That's my position, take it or leave it."

Yet he speaks publicly about abortion only when asked, and he has not offered policy proposals such as the one in Texas, which would create new rules that would effectively close most abortion clinics and ban the practice after 20 weeks. That bill is expected to become law.

In New Jersey's Democratically controlled Legislature, such proposals would have little chance of passage.


Christie doesn't describe his five rejections of $7.5 million in family-planning funds - which had historically been an annual part of the budget - as having anything to do with abortion. He says he has generously funded women's health through other providers.

"I'm tired in this budget, and others, of paying for duplication of services - and this is a duplication of service," Christie said last month in an NJTV interview. "If these [family-planning] clinics want to exist, they can raise the funds privately to do that."

Asked whether it bothers him that public dollars support Planned Parenthood, Christie wouldn't take the bait, saying: "That's not the issue; the issue is duplication of services."

He cites his $10 million increase in reimbursements so Federally Qualified Health Centers, or FQHCs, can treat the uninsured. Although 31,000 fewer females every year go to family-planning centers - a 28 percent drop during Christie's term - the number of women served by FQHCs over that time has gone up by nearly 50,000, according to Christie's Department of Health.

Planned Parenthood officials say the need has increased and say they don't know whether their former patients are getting the care they need.

"Did they go elsewhere and get those services?" asked Joyce Kurzweil, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey, about former patients at her clinic in Cherry Hill. "Or are we looking at women who put themselves at risk for an unplanned pregnancy?"

The state's Family Planning Association says that after Christie's cuts, the number of syphilis tests at family-planning centers declined by 29 percent and the number of HIV tests dropped 18 percent. Clinical breast exams went down 31 percent.

The state Health Department said that it didn't have such detailed statistics but that the number of women who received general gynecological exams at FQHCs increased from 40,091 in 2009 to 45,068 in 2012. Like family-planning clinics, FQHCs provide condoms and birth control.

Christie has overtly favored FQHCs over family-planning clinics. In 2010, he yanked an application to the federal government that would have covered 90 percent of the state's costs - a 9-1 match - for expanding Medicaid eligibility for family-planning services.

And late last month, on the same day he vetoed the $7.5 million appropriation, Christie vetoed a bill that would have expanded Medicaid coverage for family-planning services to those with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Again, he cited budgetary reasons.

The political implications of these moves have apparently been minimal. A Quinnipiac University poll last week found that half of Democrats think he deserves reelection, while women favor him over Buono 59 to 30 percent.


Meanwhile, antiabortion groups are relieved that Christie is stopping public funding to "abortion providers" such as Planned Parenthood.

With the steady stream of revenue they have, it is unconscionable that they would force New Jersey taxpayers to fund them," Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, said of Planned Parenthood.

Statewide, family-planning clinics in 2012 collected $8.7 million from federal grants, $10.8 in payments from patients (including insurers, Medicaid, and Medicare), and $6.7 million in other revenue, including government grants, foundation grants, and individual donations, according to the Family Planning Association.

Tasy calls Planned Parenthood "a political organization with a radical agenda."

Planned Parenthood does have a political affiliate, and its PAC will be active in the gubernatorial campaign.

"Let's just say we'll raise and spend more than we have in past years," said Ed Remsen, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey.

Remsen said abortion-rights advocates were "caught off guard by the severity and suddenness of the cuts in 2010." With this governor, he said, they won't make that mistake again.