Atlantic City takeover another example of Christie’s governing style – Philadelphia Inquirer

Atlantic City takeover another example of Christie’s governing style – Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted on Mon, Jul. 26, 2010

Gov. Christie issued a stern message to Atlantic City in January after a state comptroller’s audit uncovered $23 million in municipal government waste: Get your act together, or I’ll do it for you.

Two days after his six-month anniversary of taking office, the governor delivered on his ultimatum, endorsing state oversight of the resort’s casino district to counter ineptitude at City Hall.

Stressing the need for immediate action, Christie on Wednesday set a July 1 deadline for making the new district clean and safe.

It was an illustration of Christie’s general approach to governance in his first half-year: Take a problem that has dogged New Jersey for years. Offer tough love in sound bites that sometimes belie the complexity of the issue. Set a rapid timetable to fix it. And aggressively use executive power to get results.

That path can be seen in his attempts to reform property taxes, affordable-housing policies, the pension system, the state’s top court, and more.

And while repeatedly saying Trenton must get out of the way, Christie has unabashedly wielded executive power more than any other governor in recent memory.

“Is he one of the most powerful governors in New Jersey’s history? Yes. . . . He has consolidated the power that the constitution provided to the Governor’s Office and used it in a far more effective way than his recent predecessors have,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

Speaking about Atlantic City at the New Meadowlands Stadium on Wednesday, Christie said New Jersey has had eight years of timid leadership that always looked to please everyone.

“You have to be bold,” he said. “We’re in difficult times. We have to turn the state around, and I’m willing to do that.”

Concerns about a state power grab, balanced by support for strong action, date to the earliest days of Christie’s governance.

Consider the opening lines of a legal challenge to Executive Order 12, which Christie signed three weeks into his term.

The order suspended for 90 days the powers of the state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) to enforce regulations that towns must provide low- and moderate-income housing. A task force established by the executive order was to use that time to develop recommendations for reforming the system.

“This matter concerns an unprecedented attempt by Governor Chris Christie to expand the power of the governor in contravention of explicit legislative policy. . . . This sweeping assertion of executive power has no basis in New Jersey law and sets a dangerous precedent for the entire operation of state government,” reads the legal filing by the Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill.

The appellate court struck down the portion of the executive order that suspended COAH – a widely criticized agency created under 1985 legislation – but allowed the task force to continue.

Christie was undeterred, later coming out with a proposal to return affordable-housing decisions to the local level and mostly remove Trenton from the equation. The administration pressed for rapid passage by the end of June, with Senate cooperation, but the Assembly put its foot down last month. Members of the lower house questioned why legislation for such a complex problem should be rushed through without more evaluation.

Christie, who pledged while running for office to gut COAH, has been using this approach to make progress on his list of campaign promises at a furious rate.

The governor, who pledged to remake the state Supreme Court, made an unprecedented decision in May not to reappoint Justice John E. Wallace Jr., though Wallace would have had to retire in two years anyway because of age limits. Christie called the court “out of control.”

Christie, who ran for office pledging no new taxes, wielded his oft-used veto pen when Democratic lawmakers approved a bill reinstating a so-called millionaire’s tax to offset the pain of budget cuts.

He set a rapid timetable for tackling the property-tax issue as soon as he signed the $29.4 billion budget, demanding that legislators convene over the July Fourth weekend. Christie noted that residents don’t get a vacation from property taxes and asked why lawmakers should.

The result was a 2 percent cap signed into law July 13 – one that can be overridden only with voter approval. Pension costs, health care, debt service, and states of emergency would all be exempt. Still unclear is how the cap will account for existing multiyear union contracts with raises of 3 and 4 percent.

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