By Richard A. Lee
Maybe it’s because of the extensive coverage of the royal wedding, but don’t be surprised if some New Jerseyans are thinking that their state is becoming more and more like a monarchy every day.
The state’s constitution already makes whoever is sitting in the New Jersey Governor’s Office one of the most powerful governors in the nation. Other than the lieutenant governor (a position that was not even created until 2005), the governor is the only statewide, non-federal, official elected by voters. In many other states, attorney generals, comptrollers and other cabinet-level officials are elected positions. In New Jersey, the governor gets to appoint his or her cabinet members, as well as judges, county prosecutors and a host of other officials.
The New Jersey governor also has line-item veto authority, which allows him or her to delete part of a bill passed by the legislature that involves spending – a provision that has been coveted not just by other governors, but also by occupants of the Oval Office.
Into this scenario comes Chris Christie, New Jersey's 55th governor. Christie’s powerful personality matches the tremendous constitutional powers of the office, and he appears to be taking things a step or two further.
In his first 15 months in office, Christie and his administration have often treated the legislature more like a nuisance than a co-equal branch of government. Lawmakers have at times been frustrated by the administration's level of cooperation. The governor also has made a habit of ridiculing the state Senate and Assembly for failing to act on his tax reform tool kit, while passing bills he considers frivolous, such as a measure requiring that dental patients be notified if their dentures are manufactured outside the U.S.
Christie has been critical of the other co-equal branch of state government – the judiciary. He is not the first chief executive to charge that courts are overstepping their roles and legislating from the bench. But he raised the stakes recently by suggesting he may defy the New Jersey Supreme Court if it rules that the state must restore school aid funds that were cut from the state budget.
The governor also has not been shy about giving advice to the unofficial fourth branch of government – the press – on how to do its job.
Meanwhile, he is seeking expanded power over the state’s independent authorities, and he raised eyebrows a few weeks ago by taking a visible role during the legislative redistricting process. Earlier this year, his administration opted not to implement a new state law requiring restaurants to post calorie counts and wait instead for federal regulations to take effect. “I’m baffled,” the sponsor of the new law, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, told The Star-Ledger. “I don’t understand. How does the executive branch have the right to ignore the law?”
More recently, the Christie administration took a pre-emptive step in this fall’s legislative elections after former Olympian Carl Lewis’ candidacy for state senate was challenged in court by Burlington County Republicans on the grounds that he failed to meet residency requirements. An administrative law judge ruled against the GOP, but the decision was overturned by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno in her capacity as Secretary of State. Guadagno’s ruling came on the same day the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Christie personally attempted to talk Lewis out of running, and that when it became clear the former track star intended to enter the race, plans were halted for a youth fitness program he had been discussing with the administration.
Clearly, there is a pattern developing in New Jersey. We have a powerful governor who is becoming even more powerful. Watching Chris Christie as he continues to test the boundaries of his office could be quite interesting, perhaps even more interesting than watching a royal wedding.
# # #