Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Actual "State of the State"

After tireless grass roots campaigning by progressives, income inequality has finally moved from an issue recently dismissed as "socialist engineering" by conservative politicians, to a major topic of both the President's State of the Union speech as well as the World Economic Forum in Davos starting in Davos tomorrow.

You know it's a hot topic when perpetually-hopeful GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has the gall to criticize President Obama for growing income inequality in America, as he just did at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee in San Diego last week.

Did Mittens simply forget about the tens of millions he keeps stashed in sketchy offshore tax havens through a complex web of holding companies? Or a Republican Congressional minority that repeatedly opposed extending unemployment benefits, middle class tax relief and more extensive economic stimulus packages to help the poor and middle class during the Great Recession?

Income inequality, stagnant wages for the middle class and lackluster job growth are issues facing way too many folks here in New Jersey too; though you probably wouldn't know that from Governor Chris Christie's much-maligned State of the State address last week.

Christie caught some serious heat the other week from members of the New Jersey press when he held an exclusive 30-minute off-the-record closed-door meeting with representatives of five national media outlets to preview his State of the State speech.

A speech that many seasoned political observers, including the Newark Star Ledger's Paul Mulshine (check out his January 18th piece, "New Jersey's in Chris Christie's Rear-View Mirror") saw as more of a sales pitch for his 2016 presidential ambitions than a reflection of what's actually happening here in the Garden State. 

Mulshine called it Christie's "State of the Presidential Campaign Speech".

I'd like to share an observation of one aspect of what's really happening here; something that I think relates to the tone of what President Obama is talking about tonight in the US Capitol.

Last Thursday afternoon, a resident of the apartment complex where I work as the leasing agent stopped by the office to ask me a question about his lease. I'll call him "George".

He's in his late 60's, early 70's, a nice quiet guy who lives alone in a 1-bedroom apartment with his trusty cocker spaniel Romeo.

George lives on a modest pension from the Air Force and his Social Security. He told me he likes the Hamilton, New Jersey area and the apartment complex, but he's planning to move to rural Pennsylvania when his lease is up this spring because, "New Jersey is just getting too expensive."

As a guy who works in the residential apartment leasing industry, I hear that sentiment a lot these days. I've heard it from folks of different socio-economic backgrounds, different races and religions and age groups.
It's something of a cliche in New Jersey. I've heard it in-person umpteen times, at work, sitting at my local bar; the other night I heard a listener on the radio complaining about it on an NJN news report about the rising cost of living in the state.

People sort of shake their heads when they say it, and a familiar expression of regret mixed with an acknowledged inevitability of what is to come clouds their faces.

What strikes me about this commonly-shared phrase, and the concerns George shared with me in my office, is that Governor Chris Christie chose to simply leave it out of his recent "State of the State" speech.

Now Christie is a really smart guy, so I know that he knows about the mass exodus of citizens from the state of New Jersey who find the cost of living, high taxes (amongst the highest in the nation) and stagnant wages and job growth simply too much to bear.

It seems like the specific topics Christie chose to hit on in his speech were much more like a check list designed to appeal to the status-quo mindset of the extremist right-wing element that now controls the Republican party in Congress; and in many state legislatures Governor's mansions around the nation.

Perhaps it's the new political advisers and media consultants Christie has brought on board to steer his presidential campaign through the treacherous waters that lead to the coveted port where the GOP presidential nomination sits, awaiting the captain who will set course for the White House in 2016.

The tone and content of Christie's political schpeel is starting to sound like any of other the mediocre 2nd tier GOP presidential candidates; "government is bad, tax cuts for the rich are good, unions are the bane of existence, the Affordable Care Act (and Americans having access to health care) is the end of life as we know it, anything Obama says or does is the root of all evil"; yada, yada yada.

Christie's State of the State glossed over issues like New Jersey's looming pension fund crisis in this state and the role his decision to skip a required $3.1 billion payment in 2010 played in making it worse; as in a $50 billion unfunded pension liability, one of the worst in the nation.

He spent fifteen minutes talking about how drug treatment programs are more effective than prison, and that's good, but what about the state's credit rating dropping during his tenure as governor as a result of his economic policies?

Or the flat rate of job growth and the fact that his tax cuts for the wealthiest folks in New Jersey did nothing to spark new job creation? That's Trickle-Down Theory, it didn't work under Ronald Regan, it was a disaster in Kansas under Governor Sam Brownback and it didn't work here either.

But more importantly, he didn't address the concern that George shared in my office last week:
"New Jersey is just getting too expensive."

As the Baby Boomers continue to retire in the coming years, the number of "George's" in this state (and around the nation) are going to increase exponentially.

Since Christie's running for president, it's fair to ask the question: what does it say about his tenure as Governor when retired folks who worked all their lives must move out of the state they call home because they can't afford to live here?

It's going to help expand the tax base in the state of Pennsylvania (located just ten minutes from here) with it's significantly lower taxes and costs of living, because a LOT of New Jersey folk are packing up, selling their homes (or like George, ending their apartment leases) and moving across the Delaware as fast as they can.

Two of my co-workers who own homes and have raised families here in New Jersey have already told me they plan to move to Pennsylvania as soon as they retire or the kids get old enough.

The New Jersey exodus isn't limited to the Keystone State either.

In the past six months, I can think of at least four different longtime New Jersey residents of the apartment complex who, like George, are retirees living on fixed incomes who ended their leases to move down to Florida because of the cost of living.

In the same period, I can think of at least five different younger residents who ended their leases to move to places like San Diego, Chicago, Philadelphia or my beloved city of New York because they found better-paying jobs, and or opportunities to purchase homes which wouldn't come with the kind of crippling taxes that shackle home-owners in most parts of New Jersey.

Is that a natural part of a normal cycle in a shifting economy that's still recovering? Or the actual state of a state that Candidate Christie doesn't want to talk about because it might muddy his candidacy?

I don't know anything about George's politics, but I do know he won't be around to hear whether Christie addresses the concerns of average folks like him in the 2016 State of the State speech.

George and Romeo will have already moved away to another state.

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