New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a critic of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, reversed course to seek a Medicaid expansion in his $32.9 billion spending plan proposed as he pursues re-election.
Christie, 50, joined seven other Republican governors who plan to expand the federal-state program for the poor, after opposing Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Florida’s Rick Scott took the step last week, joining four others — John Kasich of Ohio, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Rick Snyder of Michigan — who all face re-election next year.
The expansion is a “huge concession” by Christie, said Brigid Harrison, who teaches law and politics at Montclair State University. As he spoke yesterday, she said, his expression “was contemptuous — like he had swallowed a bitter pill.”
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“Not only is he complying with the Affordable Care Act, but participating in the expansion of a government program,” Harrison said by telephone. That’s contrary to his distaste for the Obama law, and his smaller-government philosophy, she said.
“Let me be clear, I am no fan of the Affordable Care Act,” Christie said in laying out his proposed fiscal 2014 budget for lawmakers. “I fought against it and believe, in the long run, it will not achieve what it promises. However, it is now the law of the land. I will make all my judgments as governor based on what is best for New Jerseyans.”
Christie praised Obama’s help with Hurricane Sandy before the 2012 presidential election and faulted Republican House Speaker John Boehner over delayed aid in January. As a result, the governor won’t be invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference’s 2013 meeting, said a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t allowed to speak publicly for CPAC and asked not to be named. Christie was a CPAC speaker last year.
The Medicaid expansion would add 104,000 clients to the state’s program, which already serves 1.4 million, to save taxpayers $227 million in the year that begins July 1, according to Christie. Federal money will cover the cost for the first three years.
The move will expand Medicaid rolls by three times the number of clients Christie counted and will create health-care jobs, according to Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from East Orange. She attributed his changed stance to the budget savings.
“There is no way, in a state like New Jersey, the governor could walk away from Medicaid expansion money,” Oliver told reporters.
Under his budget, Christie would add about $1.68 billion to state pensions and raise spending by 2.3 percent from the current year. He would delay $392 million in property-tax rebates to close most of a $407 million deficit. He counts on a 4.9 percent revenue increase, a smaller gain than he projected last year, when his forecast for more than 8 percent growth was challenged by Democrats and Standard & Poor’s.
S&P revised its outlook on New Jersey’s debt to negative from stable in September, citing Christie’s “optimistic” economic assumptions, an unfunded pension liability and the use of nonrecurring revenue to close shortfalls.
In his budget speech a year ago, Christie said the state’s economic rebound had begun, making a 10 percent state income-tax cut manageable. Democratic lawmakers refused to sign off on his plan, saying the state couldn’t afford it. Yesterday, Christie once again urged the legislature to pass the reduction.
“New Jersey has turned around and is growing again,” the governor said.
Democrats, including state Sen. Barbara Buono of Metuchen, a potential Christie gubernatorial opponent, said he didn’t present a cohesive plan to bolster the economy and add jobs. New Jersey’s 9.6 percent December jobless rate was the fourth-highest in the nation.
Christie’s plan won’t reduce New Jersey unemployment, according to Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, a Democrat from Cherry Hill. Democrats said they want to reduce property taxes and foster more job creation.
“There’s about 1 percent of this population that is doing better,” Greenwald said. “We are three years into this experiment and it has not borne fruit.”
On Nov. 26, Christie said he would seek a second term to oversee the $36.9 billion job of rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy. Democrats, who control the state Legislature, have said Christie is using the storm to deflect economic concerns.
The governor described the fiscal stalemate in Washington as “inexcusable” in his remarks yesterday. Congressional Republicans are locked in a standoff with Obama over $85 billion in spending cuts set to take effect on Friday. Christie proposed a $40 million contingency fund for Sandy expenses that aren’t reimbursed by the federal government.
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“This will ensure that we can move ahead with maximum speed, and that those things that fall through the cracks do not bankrupt families, businesses or local governments,” he said.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville, said Christie used his budget pitch as a platform to reach Garden State voters.
“This was politically both a very astute and aggressive speech, which is what is expected in February of an election year,” Dworkin said by telephone. “When you’re going before voters, there’s no talk of cutbacks, there’s talk about more.”
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