Anatomy of a Hatchet Job
Newark Star-Ledger columnist Tom Moran has an op-ed today that very well may be the most disingenuous editorial thus far written on New Jersey Governor Chris Chrtistie. Titled “The Anatomy of an $11 Billion Myth in New Jersey,” The piece makes wildly inaccurate claims about Christie’s fiscal year 2011 budget, falsely alleges that Christie has made false claims about his budget, and attempts to pin blame on Christie for inaccurate reporting on the budget in the press.
As if all that isn’t enough, Mr. Moran bases his baseless conclusions on an internal contradiction so glaringly obvious even a liberal Star-Ledger columnist should be able to spot it.
In comments on his editorial, however, Moran says critics shouldn’t focus on him in addressing the claims he makes, but should instead seek to refute the arguments. He’s pretty confident that it can’t be done.
“How about this crazy idea: Let’s assume our fellow citizens are acting in good faith, let’s stop attacking motives and instead address the argument.
Haven’t heard anyone dispute the heart of the argument. And how could you? [...] These are facts, unrefuted.”
That sounds like a Tuscon Challenge™, Mr. Moran. So here goes, civilly, one at a time.
First a little background. Mr. Moran has been in the vanguard of the hand-wringers brigade in New Jersey that has been taking after Gov. Christie for his “confrontational tone” almost since the day he took office. At a press conference last May during which Christie rejected the Democrats’ plan to reinstate a surtax on high income earners, Moran was on the business end of a pretty thorough rebuke from Christie on the subject of tone. Watch here:
That clip was one of many that would win Gov. Christie praise from conservatives and attention from the press nationwide, leaving Moran with more than a little bit of egg on his face.
Moran claims that Christie has been misleading in claiming that his fiscal year budget cut $11 billion from the state budget. ”[I]t’s a myth. He cut $2.7 billion,” Moran writes. As evidence, he cites a recent quote from Christie on the Imus radio program in which the governor says:
“It was an $11 billion budget deficit on a $29 billion budget my buddy Jon Corzine left me, and we fixed it.”
Notice what is not contained in that quote. Nowhere does the governor claim that he cut $11 billion from the budget. He only asserts that his budget “fixed” the $11 billion deficit problem.
Mr. Moran must have known that the quote was flimsy evidence because he tries to cover for it by alleging that Christie is responsible for shoddy reporting on his budget cuts, rather than the news organizations themselves. Moran inexplicably faults Christie for a 60 Minutes report that said he cut the state’s budget by 26%. The actual figure is 9%, and Christie has never claimed otherwise. Just last week in his first State of the State address to the New Jersey Legislature, the governor cited the correct figure.
Christie said his fiscal 2011 budget, enacted with only minor changes by the Democratic legislature last June, had reduced spending by 9 percent from the prior year, closing a projected $11 billion deficit without raising taxes. The budget accomplished this by making cuts – some as much as 39 percent – in every department in state government. It also contained cuts of more than $445 million in aid to municipalities and $800 million in state aid to schools on top of $475 million in education spending that was withheld from the prior year.
Moran tries to get around Christie’s budget balancing prowess by explaining that the $11 billion budget deficit estimate is not what it seems.
“[H]ere’s the skinny: Every year, the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates the cost of fully funding every state program — all pension payments, all property tax rebates, all school funding, etc.
No governor ever does that. The purpose of this exercise is to establish a starting point for the budget tug-of-war.”
Remember that point, that the OLS budget number is essentially a worst case scenario, because Moran almost immediately forgets it, and it gets him tied up in knots. Before his big finish, however, Moran makes one more errant charge about Christie’s budget cutting prowess. Only this time, he winds up indicting prior Democratic administrations as well.
Moran correctly notes that New Jersey’s budget is in dire straits in large part to unfunded liabilities in the public employees’ pension system – some $54 billion this year. Moran says that the pension’s impact on the bottom line has worsened, “partly because Christie skipped the $3 billion payment that was due this year.” So far, so good.
But Moran leaves out two important points. He fails to mention that New Jersey governors have failed to make full contributions to the pension system for most of the past ten years, which would include the entire tenures of Christie’s Democratic predecessors Jim McGreevy and Jon Corzine; and he conveniently forgets to factor in the effect of generous pension benefit increases given to the state’s public sector unions by previous administrations. Christie, in fact, has called on the Democratic controlled legislature to rescind a 9% pension increase granted by Republicans in 2001 as part of a package of reforms to the system.
Moran now makes his closing argument. He says that the ultimate proof that Christie’s budget cuts aren’t all that the governor or the press has made them out to be is seen in the estimated budget deficit for fiscal year 2012. That estimate is $10.5 billion, “nearly as bad as this year’s,” he says. But the estimated budget deficit Moran cites comes from the very same OLS that he earlier said produced the mythical $11 billion deficit estimate for fiscal 2011. Indeed in the very sentence preceding his close, Moran calls the $11 billion figure “theoretical.”
Moran is unashamedly trying to have it both ways in this editorial. Either the estimated budget deficits for 2011 and 2012 are real or they are not. He cannot claim that Christie’s work to close the 2011 budget hole is as meaningless as the number it is based on, then offer as proof the very same number from the very same source.
Furthermore, Moran’s criticism is completely irrelevant since Gov. Christie already addressed the OLS estimate for 2012. Christie said that the calculation was “fake,” and pledged not to reinstate cuts that were made last year.
“[The estimate comes from] a mindset that says, ‘We’re going to build back all the cuts the governor made this year, and we’re going to then give it the hands-off-the-wheel enhancement,’” Christie said. “The number is completely fake, and doesn’t understand the new reality, which is I’m not going to approve spending that goes over [last year].”
“The new bar is set. The place to reduce from is where we are now,” Christie said.
If Moran wanted to be honest, he would have acknowledged the governor’s comments on the OLS estimate. It seems clear, however, that Moran has no interest in honest criticism. What he wants to do is cast accusations at Christie in the vain hope that they will somehow cause the governor to pursue policies that Moran finds more acceptable. One might even say that Moran has adopted a “confrontational” tone on this issue.
Mr. Moran, consider yourself refudiated. The ball is in your court.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly claimed that former governor Jon Corzine and the Democratic legislature granted a 9% increase in pension benefits. That increase was granted by a Republican legislature and governor in 2001.