What to Expect in New Jersey Politics for 2017

By David Cruz

When 2016 began, Chris Christie was still a bonafide presidential candidate and Donald Trump was a comical distraction. As 2017 begins, President-Elect Trump is preparing to take the oath of office and Christie is limping into his final year in office, rejected, first by primary voters, and then by the man in whose basket he had placed all his political eggs.

“I’m not eating Oreos any more you know that. But, neither is Chris. You’re not eating Oreos any more,” said Trump.

As Christie tries to salvage his legacy, the race to succeed him will dominate the political news of 2017. Will Assemblyman John Wisniewski be able to slow down what most believe is an inevitable victory for Phil Murphy in the Democratic primary? On the Republican side, will Kim Guadagno even seek the nomination? She says she’ll have an announcement any day now. If she does run, she’ll have to answer for her many years of standing by the governor as his poll numbers continue to plummet.

Back in July of 2015, when Guadagno was asked if there have been times when she’s disagreed with the front office, she said, “If there have been times, I’m not telling you.”

Because her likely opponent, Assemblyman Jack Ciaterrelli, has his Christie answer set.

“I’m not seeking Chris Christie’s support. I’m going to take my message to the people; it’s their support I need,” Ciaterrelli said in October.

But beyond the executive branch, the entire Legislature is up for re-election, so expect strange bedfellows and possibly more lawmakers running away from the governor, which could manifest itself in rebellious votes like we saw a couple of weeks ago on the governor’s book deal bill. Will 2017 be the year when Democrats are able to muster enough Republican votes to finally override a Christie veto? And just what will the Legislature prioritize?

“There’ll be plenty of people who will play the pander card and say, oh the governor, he doesn’t want to increase people’s wages. No, I don’t want to increase people’s wages because I don’t have the right to do that,” Christie said in August.

Christie vetoed the bill that would have raised the minimum wage over several years and lawmakers are determined to put it back onto the ballot, although how determined they are could depend on how the political winds are blowing, which has left unions and others frustrated.

Lawmakers will have to wrestle with the governor over how to get the state’s budget in balance after 10 credit downgrades. On top of the fact that tax collections are down, the new year will have the added fiscal unpredictability of a sales tax cut, the elimination of the estate tax, raising of the retirement income tax exclusion, increasing the earned income tax credit and a tax deduction for veterans. The governor will deliver a balanced budget because it’s the law in New Jersey, but the battle to get there could prove injurious to all sides.

“This is the first step in a process, this is the first step in a process and this is not over. I assure you we’re going to have another news conference, but it may take a year or two, but it will be a different news conference only discussing different issues and a different result, ” said attorney Michael Critchley after the Bridgegate verdict was announced.

The governor will also face continued fallout from the George Washington Bridge lane closure case. Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly — scheduled to be sentenced in February — are asking for a new trial, and while the courts have denied motions for a special prosecutor, a state case tying Christie to the events at the George Washington Bridge is still, technically, pending. Could we see Christie in a courtroom in 2017? And will he dedicate a chapter to it in his book?

“I’ll write a book in a year,” he said.

And what will he write about the job he’s done in Atlantic City? With the casino resort town still facing bankruptcy, Christie insider Jeff Chiesa has been installed as a CEO, at $400 an hour, with a mandate to right the ship and cut, cut, cut and sell, sell, sell whatever he can to keep AC afloat. But will he be able to gain the trust of a city reeling from a year of layoffs and tax increases?

“My plan is to do what I think is necessary to create the structural and financial situation that works. Not for six months, not for a year but indefinitely,” Chiesa said.

Even as Atlantic City tries to keep its head above water, other cities around the state face 2017 with unprecedented optimism. Jersey City continues its historic expansion with development moving from the waterfront to almost all sections of the city. In Newark, groundbreakings continue to expand the downtown district with hundreds of units of market-rate housing coming on line and promises of more amenities like a Whole Foods and Starbucks. Camden has experienced a surge of investment spurred by state tax breaks from the state. The schools here are also getting special attention from the state, as the governor outlines the Camden chapter of his memoir. He could also be the governor who freed the school systems in the state’s two largest cities from the yolk of state control as Newark and Jersey City race to meet criteria for freedom in 2017. In Jersey City, the mayor says it could happen this spring, although Newark may have to wait another year, at least.

“Decisions were made to raise operating costs to historic levels, to take funds that normally went for capital and shift them to operating and it was a budget game,” said Assemblyman John McKeon in December.

As lawmakers begin to peel the onion at NJ Transit, which could prove to be bad news for the agency, commuters are eagerly awaiting positive news on the transit front. Now that the Transportation Trust Fund has been replenished, local officials are lining up to fill their buckets. Will light rail expansion into Bergen County finally happen? Will there be a Camden to Gloucester line? Residents will want to get acquainted with the Transportation Capital Program Approval Committee, whose four members will have final say over those projects as they come up for approval in 2017.

“We have seen no real public engagement, not of the officials who represent the community, nor of the city of New York, nor of the local community board, nor of other stakeholders,” said New York Congressman Jerald Nadler in August.

New York officials are trying to put a stop to a new Port Authority Bus Terminal after New Jersey lawmakers did some heavy lifting to get the project onto the authority’s capital plan. This fight could come to a head in 2017.

Of course, there’s more. Will lawmakers come up with an alternative to Christie’s Fairness Formula for funding public schools? Will Steve Fulop really be happy as mayor of Jersey City for four more years? Can Paterson Mayor Joey Torres fend off indictment in an overtime abuse case? Will the U.S. Supreme Court agree to hear what’s left of the corruption case against Sen. Bob Menendez? And will 2017 be the year New Jersey starts to turn the corner on the opioid addiction crisis?

“I will not stand for the idea that any soul is irredeemable,” said Christie.

Then, there’s the president-elect who — whether you like it or not — has more Jersey ties than any other president since Woodrow Wilson. What impact will he have on the Garden State? Is Christie really — as some of his allies have suggested — waiting in the wings to swoop in and bring order to a chaotic White House? And Trump. Is he our new Snookie or Tony Soprano? The world, it seems, is waiting to find out — in 2017.