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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Spinning Gov. Chris Christie’s Greatest Hits

A TV ad in support of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie supplies some misleading information about the governor’s record. The ad praises Christie and unnamed “reformers from both sides” for:

  • “Creating jobs.” But the state has added only 37,100 jobs since he took office in January 2010. New Jersey and national unemployment rates were identical (9.7 percent) when Christie became governor. The state’s unemployment rate is now 9.1 percent — a full percentage point higher than the national average and fifth highest among all states.
  • Putting “more money in our classrooms.” That’s false. Christie cut direct state aid for K-to-12 programs when he took office by $1 billion — from $8 billion in fiscal year 2010 to $7 billion in fiscal year 2011. He proposes to spend $7.8 billion in fiscal year 2013, but that’s still less than the 2010 funding level.
  • Overhauling the state’s pension system that “saved our pensions.” But it may be premature to declare victory. Christie last year signed a law that required public employees to pay more into the pension system and suspended cost of living increases for retirees. But four months later, the state disclosed in bond documents that its unfunded pension liabilities — which dropped after the law was signed — are expected to rise again because the state is underfunding the system.

‘Creating Jobs’?

The ad, which is called “Direction,” is the work of the Committee for Our Children’s Future, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. The group spent $2.1 million on TV ads supporting Christie in January and February of this year, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a unit of Kantar Media. Brian Jones, a spokesman for the Committee for Our Children’s Future, says the organization will spend $1.6 million on the new ad, which started airing May 17.

The latest ad comes as the Republican governor is trying to pass a state budget — and as speculation is increasing that he might be a potential vice presidential running mate for likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Christie was an early supporter of Romney’s presidential bid and is one of several Republican officeholders mentioned as a VP candidate. The Committee for Our Children’s Future has connections to the Romney campaign. Jones, the group’s spokesman, recently joined the Romney campaign, and his firm, the Black Rock Group, has done work for the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.

The new ad features testimonials from people who identify themselves as independents, Democrats and Republicans. They praise Christie and “reformers from both sides” — although no one else is named — for moving the state in the right direction. One man says Christie and reformers are “creating jobs.” It’s true that New Jersey has seen a slight increase in total jobs since January 2010, when Christie took office. But the state’s job growth is lagging the nation as a whole.

When Christie took office, New Jersey had 3,852,200 total non-farm jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its unemployment rate was 9.7 percent — the same as the nation as a whole. As of April, the state had an estimated 3,889,300 jobs, which is an increase of 37,100 jobs. The unemployment rate dropped to 9.1 percent, but that’s a full percentage point higher than the national average of 8.1 percent.

New Jersey has the fifth highest unemployment rate among the 50 states behind only Nevada (11.7 percent), Rhode Island (11.2 percent), California (10.9 percent), and North Carolina (9.4 percent).

Jones provided us with an April 18 story in The Record about an economic forum, where Rutgers University economist Nancy Mantell predicted that New Jersey could add 48,000 jobs this year. She also said the state’s unemployment rate could drop to 8.6 percent by the end of the year. That may happen, but even if it does, the state’s unemployment rate would still be higher than the current national average and not good enough to lift the state out of the bottom tier.

‘More Money In Our Classrooms’?

The ad also shows a woman saying that Christie and reformers have “put more money in our classrooms.” Actually, Christie has reduced state spending on classroom programs.

Direct state aid for kindergarten to 12th grade programs in the state’s public schools was $7.8 billion (page 9) in fiscal year 2009 and $8 billion (page 4) in fiscal year 2010, according to the state’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. In his first budget, Christie proposed cutting that funding by $1 billion, down to $7 billion, for the 2011 fiscal year. The actual amount spent that year was a shade under $7 billion (page 4). Since then, some funding has been restored — up to $7.7 billion in fiscal year 2012 (page 4) and a proposed $7.8 billion (page 4) in 2013.

Even so, classroom spending is not at the level it was before Christie took office.

When we pointed this out, Jones referred us to a July 13, 2011, Star-Ledger story on the fiscal 2012 budget, when Christie increased direct state aid by $850 million. Jones said the article shows that Christie increased funding “for all districts in terms of operating budgets.” Yes, the Star-Ledger reported that Christie “will boost funding for all districts by at least 2 percent of their operating budgets.” Still, the increases in funding — both actual and proposed — don’t offset the total cuts Christie imposed in his first year in office.

The governor had a chance to put more money into the classrooms, but he used his line-item veto to remove another $450 million in the 2012 budget that would have “fully funded all school districts” under the state’s school-funding formula, the Star-Ledger reported.

Star Ledger, July 13, 2011: The budget Democrats in the Legislature passed would have fully funded all school districts and cost the state an additional $450 million. Christie line-item vetoed that budget, leaving more than 200 moderate- and middle-income districts with less money than the state’s school funding formula says they deserve.

‘Saved Our Pensions’?

The ad also shows a man saying, “They saved our pensions.” That’s largely a matter of opinion — one not shared by the state’s largest public employees union, the Communication Workers of America, which represents many of the retirees and workers whose pensions were “saved.” It also may be premature for the governor to declare victory since the state’s unfunded pension liabilities are expected to rise again, despite changes to the pension system.

In June 2011, Christie signed a law that suspended retirees’ cost-of-living increases and required public employees to contribute more toward their pension benefits. The New Jersey CWA opposed the legislation. Without the law, the administration warned that the pension system would collapse under the weight of its growing unfunded liabilities. “For New Jersey’s pension fund, the unfunded liability for its State and local components is now $54 billion, and without reform, that liability will rise to $183 billion by 2041,” the treasurer’s office said.

But four months later, the Star-Ledger wrote — in a story headlined “Christie’s overhaul may not save N.J. pension system” — that the state was underfunding the pension system and, as a result, the unfunded liabilities gap would begin to widen again.

Star-Ledger, Oct. 23, 2011: The “unfunded liability” — the difference between how much the pension system has and what has been promised to current and future retirees — dropped from $53.9 billion to $35.4 billion after the law was signed, the state said in bond documents.

But because the state won’t be making full pension payments, the gap will swell again to $58 billion by 2019, according to the state’s estimates.

“While admirable, this was paper reform,” said Fred Beaver, former state pension director. “The state is going to need a big shovel to get out of the hole they are digging themselves by not making the payments.”

Richard C. Dreyfuss, a pension expert at the Commonwealth Foundation, a nonprofit educational research group in Pennsylvania, told the Star-Ledger the state is enjoying short-term pension relief at the expense of future taxpayers. He called it “generational theft.”

Jones pointed to an earlier Star-Ledger editorial that ran shortly after the law was signed praising the pension changes as imperfect but “a good deal for taxpayers.” He said, “Is it the perfect deal, no. But the steps Christie put in place are putting the state back on terra firma.”

We take no position on whether the New Jersey pension changes were good or bad for the state, its taxpayers and its public employees. We do, however, want to point out that it may be premature to give the governor credit for saving the state’s pension system.

— Eugene Kiely