VA and NJ governors give national GOP a boost but also face questions from conservatives

Jon Ward Contributor
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Republicans in Congress may not be offering much in the way of alternatives to Democratic policies, preferring to play it safe politically and avoid giving the party in power targets to shoot at.

But national Republicans say the success of recently elected Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia offer real evidence that the GOP is a party whose core principles can address the modern crisis of government debt and deficits.

“Voters who wonder if Republicans will be serious about reining in spending can look at New Jersey and Virginia for assurances,” said Ed Gillespie, a senior Republican party strategist, who was chairman of the Virginia GOP before running the White House communications shop for former President George W. Bush in 2007 and 2008.

It was surprising enough when Republicans Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell swept to victory last fall in New Jersey and Virginia’s gubernatorial elections. But what may be even more shocking now is how quickly both governors have chalked up huge victories during their first six months in office.

Christie has rolled over significant opposition from organized labor in the state to force state employees to begin contributing to their pension funds, pass a budget with huge spending cuts to close an $11 billion deficit, and forge a compromise with Democrats to cap property tax increases at two percent a year.

McDonnell has turned a projected $1.8 billion deficit for the fiscal year that closed at the end of June into a $220 million surplus.

“Governors Christie and McDonnell are governing as they campaigned, addressing the government union legacy costs and high taxes that put New Jersey in a downward spiral and eliminating the largest deficit in Virginia history without raising taxes,” Gillespie told The Daily Caller.

Christie is now working for the rest of the summer with the Democratic-controlled legislature on passing a “tool kit” of reforms to give local governments, school districts and universities more ability to keep their own costs down.

Surprisingly, the property tax proposal and “tool kit” have been endorsed and supported by Newark Mayor Corey Booker, a rising Democratic party star who defied unions and the Democratic state Senate president to do so, but questioned by the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Nonetheless, the accomplishments of both Republicans point to a climate in which cost-cutting and other unpleasant steps to reduce deficits are more politically feasible than any time in recent memory.

McDonnell and other Republicans are trying to leverage that message on the national stage as well, casting the GOP as the party that can reform the federal government.

“What’s happened at the federal level – more debt, more taxes, more regulation, undermining right to work laws – that’s not the formula and what we Republican governors are trying to do around the country … is just promote free enterprise,” McDonnell said in an interview with Fox News Friday.

Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said via e-mail: “They are setting examples Democrats in Washington would be wise to heed.”

The momentum may translate into congressional races in Virginia this fall, where viable Republican candidates are seeking to defeat Democrats in at least four key districts.

Even the Democratic Governors Association could find little to criticize, though they claim they were fiscally responsible before it was cool.

“These governors simply copied a page from the DGA playbook, but we are happy to see them follow our lead,” said DGA spokeswoman Emily DeRose. “The fact is that over the last decade, Democratic governors have controlled state spending better than their Republican counterparts.”

She added, “This is why more Democratic governors than Republican governors have AAA bond ratings, why four of the five states listed in Forbes as Best for Business have Democratic governors, and why Republican governors still struggle more than their counterparts with record unemployment.”

Gillespie called the DGA claim “laughable.”

“Christie had to clean up after two Dem governors, as did McDonnell,” he said.

Schrimpf said that the three states with the lowest unemployment rates — North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska — all have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures, and that cable channel CNBC has ranked Texas and Virginia as their top states to do business in.

However, six of the seven states with the worst unemployment rates are run by Republican governors (Nevada, California, Rhode Island, Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina), though Schrimpf said that in the first three of those all have Democratic-controlled legislatures.

Despite their successes, both McDonnell and Christie have encountered plenty of second-guessing, a good portion of it coming from conservatives.

McDonnell’s balanced budget has been panned as a budgeting gimmick because it relied on postponing a $620 million payment to the state employee pension system.

Norman Leahy, of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, said avoiding the payment to the pension system was “playing with fire.”

“A review of state pension plans from the American Enterprise Institute put Virginia’s unfunded liabilities at nearly $53 billion – 17 percent of state GDP,” Leahy wrote in the Washington Examiner.

Christie too has taken some heat for backing off his original proposal, a hard 2.5 percent cap enshrined in the state constitution, in favor of a 2 percent cap enshrined in law but subject to a simple majority override in the legislature and also to exceptions for spending health care, pensions, state emergencies and increased school enrollment.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board expressed concern that Democrats in the legislature would water down the “tool kit” measures now that the threat of a constitutional amendment was not looming over their heads.

“New Jersey voters have cause to be cynical about politicians, and this only increases the burden on Mr. Christie to pass durable reforms that remove the bias toward ever-greater spending,” the Journal wrote.

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said in an interview that the new property tax cap lowered the number of exemptions from 14 to 4. Roberts said that when the cap had 14 exemptions it was “a cap without a cap.” But he also said that the Christie administration has “never ducked the fact that the statutory cap is a compromise.”

“The Governor recognized that compromising on his proposed constitutional amendment would accomplish his objective without violating his core principles of having a low, hard cap on property taxes with limited exceptions that finally empower people to have the final say over increases above the cap,” Roberts said.

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