For two years, New Jersey has been like an abandoned house, the newspapers piling up on the stoop telling of basic upkeep left undone.
Instead of burst pipes and an overgrown lawn, the inattention in this case has been to pressing policy problems: Transportation funding drained away. Atlantic City slipped to the brink of bankruptcy. The Jersey Shore grew more vulnerable to storms without a plan to protect it from some of the worst flooding. And in the wake of the collapse of bipartisan pension reforms, the state still owes far more benefits to employees than it can afford.
Now that Gov. Christie has come home, a decision forced on him by the results of the early presidential primaries, New Jersey residents aren't much more pleased with him than the voters of New Hampshire and Iowa were. They are welcoming him with low approval ratings and a lengthy to-do list.
So far, Christie has applied for federal aid for Shore towns damaged by recent flooding. But the state still needs a plan to protect barrier islands from the surging waters of back bays.
Last week, he fired the county prosecutor who botched the investigation of the deaths of political insider John Sheridan and his wife. But he still has to nominate an attorney general, a crucial position that he has left in an acting capacity for nearly three years.
Christie also proposed a state budget last week. But the dire financial challenges of stabilizing Atlantic City and addressing pension obligations remain.
Christie's budget address didn't suggest that his experience on the campaign trail taught him humility. He belittled those who have rightly noted that critical transportation funding will run out in July. He also suggested an unseemly trade: eliminating the estate tax in exchange for raising revenue for essential road, bridge, and transit work. Although the Transportation Trust Fund helps drive New Jersey's economy, Christie has resisted efforts to replenish it by raising New Jersey's low gas tax amid slumping gas prices. If the estate tax is Christie's price for responsibly funding transportation, he will have to replace the estimated $300 million in revenue it produces.
The governor acknowledges that state employee retirement and health benefits are a growing fiscal problem, though not his role in exacerbating it. He made a deal with Democratic lawmakers to fund pensions in 2011 and then broke it.
The Legislature has responded by proposing a constitutional amendment that would mandate pension funding levels, which would reduce the state's fiscal flexibility in troubled times. Christie is right to oppose the idea, but he has to keep his word on responsible pension funding this time around. On the other side, Democrats and government workers should not dismiss the governor's recent pension study, which called for scaling back benefits and using the savings to shore up the funds.
New Jersey's house has fallen into deeper disrepair while Christie neglected it. There may be some hope for improvement now that somebody's home.