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Christie touts N.J.'s strong spirit post-Sandy; defends economic record in State of State speech Democrats criticize speech as high on rhetoric, short on details

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Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State of the State speech in Trenton. (Aaron Houston, NJBIZ)
Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State of the State speech in Trenton. (Aaron Houston, NJBIZ)

Gov. Chris Christie declared that the "spirit of New Jersey has never been stronger" in a State of the State address that focused mostly on the recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

The governor praised the bipartisan cooperation in Trenton in the wake of Sandy and called on Congressional leaders in Washington to adopt the same spirit and pass a federal aid package for Sandy's victims.

"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," said Christie noting that its now been 72 days since the storm, nearly seven times the amount of time it took to get an aid package for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Christie also used the speech to defend his economic record. He said unemployment is on its way down and 2011 was the best year for private-sector job growth in 11 years. He said income tax receipts were exceeding the budgetary expectations prior to Sandy, though overall revenue was far below Christie's projections before Sandy, and was hurt even more by the storm.

The governor said the state has added 75,000 private-sector jobs since he took office, while cutting 20,000 jobs. He said a property tax cap on municipalities resulted last year in the lowest average increase in more than two decades.

"We've held the line on taxes," he said. "We also have held the line on spending. And we have made New Jersey a more attractive place in which to grow a business, to grow jobs and to raise a family."

The governor did not mention income taxes after last year proposing an across-the-board income tax cut. That plan was stalled when Democrats called the governor's revenue projections over-optimistic.

After the speech, Sen. Pres. Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) criticized the governor, saying the economy was in poor shape before Sandy, not because of Sandy. He said Christie's speech was high on rhetoric but contained little detail.

"Obviously he wants to erase the blackboard," Sweeney said. "He wants to erase it because it's bad. He's got a three-year history and it's not good."

Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-East Orange) called on the governor to approve the jobs package she and her fellow Democrats approved last month.

"New Jersey's economy was in turmoil before the storm and remains so with a 9.6 unemployment rate and economic growth that ranked 47th in the nation," Oliver said in a press release. "That's why Assembly Democrats passed numerous job creation bills in December and look forward to them finally getting the governor's attention and support."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (D-Westfield) said it would be wrong to draw conclusions from the omission of specific tax cut proposals. He said the governor has made clear he won't support tax increases, and that he generally would like to cut income taxes.

"But that's a specific that's best left for the budget address that's coming in a couple weeks where you actually put the parts of the New Jersey budget together," he said.

Kean said the state is still waiting on second quarter revenue figures, so he said there's not yet enough information to offer specific proposals.

"This is a context to say Sandy was real, it impacted all of us," Kean said. "We are resilient and we are stronger going forward."

Before the speech, business groups were looking for specifics from the governor on how he will lead both the recovery from Hurricane Sandy and the wider economic recovery. It had been widely expected that Sandy would be the dominant theme of the speech.

Phil Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said a focus on Sandy was important because the recovery is so closely tied to the state's economy.

"We feel very strongly that you cannot have a full recovery in New Jersey unless the tourism and hospitality industry in this state is up to par," he said. "And time is of the essence."

Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, said many of her members are still at the starting gate when it comes to the recovery. She'll be listening for word of targeted tax relief and other legislation to help Sandy-impacted businesses both in the short and medium terms.

Before the speech, Halvorsen said she's also hoping for a plan to encourage tourists to return.

"Unfortunately, New Jersey has been the focus of a lot of negative publicity," she said. "And I think there's a misconception that our shores and beaches are devastated. So (we'd welcome) anything they can do to promote New Jersey as a tourist destination."

John Galandak, president of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, said earlier he was interested to see Christie's vision for how the recovery will unfold.

"Lots of people have lots of good ideas about not just restoring the shore but going a step further and preventing a future catastrophe," he said. "It's really just a question about priorities and what gets fixed first."

Dean J. Paranicas, president and CEO of the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey, a life sciences industry trade group, said before the speech he was interested in how the governor plans to continue his efforts at improving the business climate.

"We certainly understand that the governor's immediate and most pressing priority is going to be recovery from Superstorm Sandy, but we also hope to hear from the governor regarding initiatives to continue to improve business climate in New Jersey," he said.

Galandak said before the speech he would also be listening for tax relief, but he said much of that will depend on state revenues, which currently are lagging behind expectations. He said he expects more specifics on taxes next month when Christie gives his budget address, since by then more will be known about federal aid and about Sandy's longer-term impact on state income.

Regardless of the revenue picture, Galandak said there are opportunities to improve the business climate by cutting red tape. He said he's been pleased thus far with how swiftly the commission's recommendations have been implemented.

"Every time the Red Tape Review Commission has come up with something that's needed a legislative fix, it's happened very quickly and had bipartisan support."

Kirschner said he's hearing positive things from Washington regarding the Sandy relief package, so he expects it will come through despite an unexpected delay when the House of Representatives failed to vote on the matter last week.

Kirschner said he's been impressed by the bipartisanship displayed by the state's Congressional delegation post-Sandy and by Sandy-related bipartisanship at the Statehouse. However, Kirschner said that spirit may not hold as the fall election draws near, when the governor and all 120 legislative seats are up for grabs.

While the Sandy recovery is likely to remain a source of bipartisan agreement, he said before the speech, "I don't anticipate the same level of bipartisanship on other issues."

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