TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie promised in his annual message to the state that New Jersey will be back "stronger than ever" after Superstorm Sandy, while Democrats criticized the speech as more pep talk than policy prescription for the state's economic ills.
Christie's State of the State address on Tuesday focused on New Jersey's recovery from its most costly natural disaster, a rebuilding effort Christie hopes to lead by winning election to a second term in November.
"The state is stronger today than it has been in years," said Christie, whose national reputation has grown since the storm and is mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. "We are recovering and growing, not declining and descending."
The only major Democrat to step up to challenge him so far, Sen. Barbara Buono of Metuchen, said afterward that Christie was right to emphasize the recovery, but not at the expense of the state's sputtering economy.
"We need to do more," she said. "The governor needs to do what he hasn't done over his first three years, and that is to come up with a plan to create jobs for people in New Jersey. He's in denial over the jobs situation here. He acts as if the economy was humming along before Superstorm Sandy."
Unemployment in November was 9.6 percent, down from 9.9 percent last summer, but still above the national rate. Property taxes are the highest in the nation, averaging nearly $7,800 per household, and revenue collections have missed the administration's targets for seven consecutive months, raising the prospect of midyear budget cuts.
Christie gave a rosier vision of the economy, saying unemployment is falling, consumer spending is up and sales of new homes are increasing while property taxes are rising more slowly.
A week after lambasting Congress for delaying a vote on a multi-billion-dollar storm aid package, he also pledged to keep pushing for federal cleanup and rebuilding money. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio subsequently held a vote on nearly $10 billion to fund the national flood insurance program — and it was adopted — and pledged a vote on the remaining $50 billion next week.
Unlike last year, when Christie laid out proposals for a 10 percent income tax cut and major education changes, Tuesday's speech contained no new proposals beyond vague resolutions to restore the Jersey Shore tourism engine, which includes cleaning up storm-ravaged Barnegat Bay and implementing policies to welcome new businesses. Christie told The Associated Press in an interview last week the hurricane recovery would supercede other policies in the final year of his first term.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver faulted Christie for not mentioning any plans to deal with crime, especially in cities. Camden last year had a record 67 homicides.
And, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, another potential Democratic rival in the governor's race, said the storm has given Christie political cover for the failings of his first term.
Sweeney, who on Monday said Christie "got lucky" when the storm happened, apologized again for the remark but said he was not backing down from the point that the governor has not done enough to create jobs, stem housing foreclosure rate or stabilize property taxes.
"His plan for the economy was a hurricane," said Sweeney, who is considering entering the governor's race. "If there wasn't a hurricane, we had no plan."
Christie took a political hit when Democrats led by Sweeney refused to approve his tax cut, even after Christie agreed with their plan to switch it to a property tax reduction. While Christie in this year's speech vowed not to return the state to "the old ways of wasteful spending and rising taxes," he did not mention any plan to cut taxes.