Since taking office last year, Gov. Chris Christie has aggressively wooed businesses by cutting red tape, boosting tax incentives, trimming taxes — and giving their leaders a front-row seat when discussing key policy decisions.
Now, the business community is responding.
Corporations, executives and related political action committees have opened up their wallets to the major state Republican committees the past 18 months, helping end the Democratic Party’s long fundraising dominance heading into the fall legislative elections.
From 2004 to 2009, these groups gave $17.9 million to the three major Democratic state committees and just $6.1 million to the Republican counterparts, according to a Star-Ledger analysis of state campaign finance records.
But since the Republican Christie came to office, these same groups have given twice as much to the GOP as to Democrats. The governor also has relied on the business community’s strong networks to help build his public narrative and push his agenda, even when the issues have little to do with commerce.
In an interview with The Star-Ledger, Christie said this confirms the business community embraces his policies, dismissing claims that such shifts always occur when the governor’s office switches parties.
“Sure, there are pragmatists that will give to whatever party is in the governor’s office, but with the economy, the pragmatists are a significantly smaller percentage,” Christie said. “What I think it has much more to do with is the policies that we are pursuing are policies the business community have been asking for for at least a decade.”
Business leaders agree.
“We support people who support us, regardless of party, and I think today’s environment is a quantum leap from the previous attitudes of government,” said Michael McGuiness, head of the Developers Political Action Committee, a group of the state’s largest commercial and residential developers.
For years, the developers split contributions between the Republican and Democratic state committees, but last year gave nearly seven times more to the GOP, records show.
Christie has given business leaders inside access and allowed them to help craft his agenda. In exchange, they provide him the type of publicity politicians crave: independent approval from influential groups with deep pockets and members who vote.
Lobbyists with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, for example, had a dozen meetings with the governor’s staff on the state budget and a host of tax incentive programs, according to records filed with the New Jersey Election Law Commission.
“We are very pleased with our ability to have that access,” said chamber President Tom Bracken, a registered lobbyist who met with Christie’s chief of staff and the lieutenant governor to discuss the budget before it was released. “It’s not the kind of access where we are seeking to get issues resolved, but more like how can we help move the governor’s agenda forward.”
One of those agenda items is school reform, which is expected to heat up this fall and includes weakening teacher tenure and implementing school choice. In a June newsletter to members, Bracken touted the governor’s achievement at passing health and benefit reform but noted there is a lot of work ahead.
“Next up is education,” Bracken writes, before rattling off many of the governor’s talking points on the plan, such as increased accountability and protecting good teachers.
Christie said having “independent validators” adds to the power of his argument.
“It’s not just that the school choice community or the charter school community endorses school reform,” he said. “But if you have the chamber standing up and saying this is good for New Jersey’s future, I think people will sit back and wonder why they are getting involved.”
He said he is employing the same formula Democrats have used over the years with the powerful unions.
“I am always looking for groups that will come out there and help me put pressure on the Legislature to do what I would like to do or help develop a public relations narrative so the public can understand that these policies have broader support,” he said.
Christie said the business community does not blindly endorse his policies, mentioning his opposition to off-shore drilling.
Lobbyists with the New Jersey Business and Industry Association helped convince Christie and Democratic lawmakers to pass long-stalled business-friendly measures, such as basing corporate taxes on sales, not employment and assets, and reducing taxes for S corporations, which pass corporate income and losses along to their shareholders for federal tax purposes.
“These were not new issues, but they just never got done,” said group President Phillip Kirschner.
Christie also beefed up tax incentive programs aimed at retaining and attracting business. Companies have lined up to take advantage of the new benefits. Through July, companies received $44.1 million in tax breaks for retaining 6,000 jobs. During the same period last year, before the incentives were in place, five companies received $1.4 million in tax breaks for keeping about 1,400 jobs in the state.
Liberal-leaning groups like New Jersey Policy Perspective say the tax incentive programs allow companies to hold the state hostage, don’t produce jobs and waste tax dollars that could go to areas like education. Bracken said investing in business may cause short-term pain, but the rewards are worth it.
“Not everybody is going to win, certain people are going to have to sacrifice more than others, that is just the way it’s going to be,” he said. “But in the long term, investing in the business community is the growth solution this state needs.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the business lobby has moved to the right on the environment and close relationships with governors can be harmful. “Business doesn’t want to pay taxes, but wants tax breaks,” he said.
Christie said boosting the state’s economy is his top priority, but if there is a line where the governor and the business community become too cozy, he is not close to crossing it.
State Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski said Christie’s courting of business is more about building the “Christie brand” than changing the business climate. He says the state’s unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, higher than the national average, shows Christie has done little to move the needle.
“His wooing of the business community is designed to promote Christie to the national political party rather than doing anything real and substantial for the state,” he said.
Christie, who stressed the private sector has added 50,000 jobs on his watch, responded in his trademark fashion: “He doesn’t understand the employment numbers, but that’s okay because there are a lot of things John doesn’t understand. But he’s compelled to talk about things he doesn’t understand because he’s the chairman of the Democratic Party,” Christie said.
Jarrett Renshaw: [log in to unmask] or (609) 989-0379