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TRENTON - Riding a 73 percent approval rating, a triumphant Gov. Christie stepped into the grand chambers of the state Assembly this afternoon for a State of the State address that focused almost entirely on Sandy and its aftermath but offered no new policy proposals.
"Sandy may have damaged our homes and our infrastructure, but it did not destroy our spirit," Christie told Assembly members, senators, cabinet officials, lobbyists, Supreme Court justices, congressmen and dozens of reporters.
"The people of New Jersey have come together as never before. Across party lines, across ideological lines, across ages, races and backgrounds. From all parts of our state. Even from out of state. Everyone has come together."
The governor is up for re-election in November, and much of his speech sounded like a victory lap. Unlike last year, when he offered a range of new policy ideas -- some of which he achieved -- this year he centered his remarks only on bipartisanship accomplishments over the last three years. He didn't mention his controversial plan to cut income taxes, which he never achieved, despite the fact that he spent all of last summer touting the proposal.
Christie didn't give any kind of sense of whether budget cuts were looming due to revenue shortfalls in his budget plan. And he didn't touch yesterday's comments from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who said that Christie "prayed" for Sandy so he could blame the storm for all of the governor's failings. Sweeney immediately apologized.
Sweeney also noted that the speech was short on details on how the state would handle the rebuilding. For example, would all homes be rebuilt, or would some homeowners be bought out?
"Speeches are nice, but actions are honestly a lot better," Sweeney said afterward. "This was a speech with no detail, no focus…a pat on the bacj isn’t enough. We gotta help these people now."
Christie repeatedly returned to the wrath of the superstorm known as Sandy -- but only in broad strokes.
Christie began his remarks by thanking those who helped in the aftermath of the worst storm in the state's history. He introduced Frank Smith, Jr., the volunteer chief of the Moonachie First Aid Squad, for a standing ovation. "His home was destroyed during the storm. His headquarters were destroyed during the storm. After securing the safety of his three young children, he did not take himself to higher ground. No, he led his team through fires and flood waters, through buildings and trailer parks, and saved over 2,000 lives," Christie said. "Moonachie’s citizens were saved because he put them first, ahead of himself."
Christie ticked off what his administration has done, with help from federal dollars, to rebuild post-Sandy. For example, the state has received $18 million from the federal government for debris removal, leading to the disposal of 2.5 million cubic yards so far, with 1,000 trucks operating every day to get rid of the rest.
But, he said, in order to recover fully, Congress must provide the $50 billion in aid he has been lobbying for over the last two months. Last week Christie famously called out a member of his own party, House Speaker John Boehner, for delaying the votes on that money. "One thing I hope everyone in America now clearly understands -- New Jersey, both Republicans and Democrats, will never stand silent when our citizens are being short-changed," Christie said.
Christie then blamed Sandy for stalling New Jersey's economic recovery, even though Democrats have been accusing the governor of using Sandy as a clutch to get out of his responsibility for the state's high unemployment and foreclosure rates.
Instead, with the Democratic Assembly Speaker and Senate President standing behind him, Christie cited positive economic news. He said unemployment "is coming down," and 2011 "was our best private sector job growth in 11 years."
"Sales of new homes are up. Consumer spending is up. Industrial production is up," he said.
Christie said that he had "held the line on taxes," even though property taxes have gone up throughout the state. And "we have held the line on spending," even though the 2013 fiscal year budget was higher than the 2012 budget.
This is a partial list of accomplishments that he ticked off: The controversial reorganization of the state's higher education system, a partial victory on teacher tenure reform, a 2 percent property tax cap, pension and benefit reform for public workers, a new teacher contract in Newark that includes merit pay and a capital program for university buildings.
"Four years. Four balanced budgets. No new taxes. New tax relief to create 75,000 new private sector jobs," Christie said. That statement sounded like it might find its way into a campaign ad later this year.
"Maybe the folks in Washington, in both parties, could learn something from our record here," he added.
I will update soon with more reaction from Democrats, but here's part of a statement from state Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski, who is an assemblyman:
"New Jersey homeowners are frustrated that the Governor slashed property tax relief. The men and women across our state who need a job are frustrated that his only response to their plight has been to call for tax cuts for the wealthiest in our state. The growing number of families whose homes are threatened with foreclosure are frustrated that his administration sat on federal funds that were meant to help them keep their homes. The state’s working poor are frustrated that he raised their taxes and twice vetoed tax relief for them because he wanted tax cuts for those who were better off. New Jersey’s women are frustrated that their access to health care was diminished so that the Governor could polish his conservative credentials with out-of-state Republican activists. New Jersey’s gay and lesbian community is frustrated by a Governor who vetoes marriage equality and believes their civil rights should be subject to a vote."
Expect Democrats to also highlight the state's 9.6 unemployment rate, one of the worst in the country, and the fact that the state has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the state. They will note that tax collections are down $700 million so far this fiscal year after the governor offered a budget that promised aggressive growth.
And they will put all of this blame on the governor's shoulders.