A Look Back at Governor Christie’s First Year
- As a candidate for governor, Chris Christie expressed support for a strengthened state planning process, pledging to improve interagency coordination, discourage suburban sprawl and focus all existing incentive programs on urban revitalization.
- Christie’s urban platform called for providing affordable, quality housing for those who need it most; making cities attractive to business and job growth; improving the quality of inner-city schools and expanding educational opportunities; and improving public safety and cutting violent crime.
- Since taking office one year ago, Christie has necessarily focused most of his attention on the state’s finances, which have been battered by the lagging economy. While his administration has taken some recent steps to elevate the role of state planning in promoting economic development, most of his urban agenda has not yet made the transition from campaign platform to public policy.
Some Progress on State Planning, Less on Urban Revitalization
In his responses to New Jersey Future’s Smart Growth Questionnaire[.pdf] in the fall of 2009, candidate Chris Christie vowed that, as governor, he would take a “holistic view” of state planning, rather than allow state agencies to proceed with their own, sometimes contradictory, policy initiatives. He promised to restore the Office of State Planning to a “leadership role” that would support county planning agencies and municipal planning efforts. “Under my leadership,” he vowed, “the Office of State Planning will be an advocate for meaningful planning in all offices across the state.”
In the year since Christie took office, the Office of State Planning (which had been re-christened the Office of Smart Growth under Gov. James McGreevey) has been renamed the Office of Planning Advocacy, and moved from the Department of Community Affairs to the Department of State, headed by the new lieutenant governor. (New Jersey Future has long advocated moving the office to a neutral location as a way of restoring its independence.) In addition, the administration recently filled several vacancies on the State Planning Commission, and has shown interest in revitalizing the state planning process as a vehicle for creating jobs and promoting economic development.
Whether future efforts along these lines will embrace the smart growth principles of the State Development and Redevelopment Plan remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Christie has an opportunity to make good on another of his smart growth promises — to provide “incentives for developers to restore existing buildings” — if he signs a measure recently approved by both houses of the Legislature that would provide tax credits for certain costs of rehabilitating historic properties.
While Christie has continued as governor to emphasize the theme of school choice, a cornerstone of his campaign document “Bringing Back Our Cities,” some of the other, loftier initiatives described in that document have failed to materialize. For example, there has been no movement on a plan for combining various existing economic incentive programs under “Garden State Growth Zones,” then implementing tax and regulatory policies in designated zones to encourage new private investment and jobs. Nor has there been any further mention of the “First Houses” program, aimed at directing new housing to “areas where rapid growth is most appropriate and desirable — in our revitalized urban areas and transit hubs.”
To be sure, untangling the red tape that often snarls urban development and redevelopment projects has been a priority of the Christie administration. And the governor has continued the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program, which provides incentives for businesses planning a large expansion or relocating to one of nine designated transit hubs. These efforts, however, fall far short of the comprehensive restructuring of tax and regulatory incentives contemplated in “Garden State Growth Zones,” and the targeted housing policies embodied in the “First Houses” program. Meanwhile, a sharp reduction in state municipal aid has dimmed the prospects for revitalization of urban areas, and the governor’s decision to scrap the ARC tunnel has stunted the economic growth potential of the state’s transit hubs.
Of course, one year does not a governorship make. While it would be easy, given events that unfolded in 2010, to hold up any number of Christie’s 2009 campaign promises to closer scrutiny (his call for reducing our dependence on automobiles via “expanded mass transit systems,” for example), it is clear that economic conditions and budgetary constraints have so far precluded him from rolling out some of the ambitious initiatives he championed as a candidate. In the coming year, however, bold action will be needed to transform New Jersey’s economy, rather than merely helping it track the nation’s plodding recovery. The governor could effect this transformation by kicking off a strategic state planning effort that builds on key assets, including our cities and transportation system, with the kind of coordinated state agency spending and programs he described so eloquently in his campaign.