By Gov. Chris Christie’s account, he arrived in Trenton and slashed billions of dollars of state spending in two years.
In a state capital thriving off freewheeling use of tax dollars, Christie said he immediately closed a $2.2 billion gap left by his predecessor. Then, the governor claims, he wielded his budget ax to eliminate another $10.7 billion.
In an interview on "Piers Morgan Tonight" that aired on Feb. 21, the same day the governor delivered his budget speech, Christie described his fiscal prudence to a national audience.
"Let's look at what I've done in New Jersey, OK? And that's the best gauge to gauge and to judge a politician. Not what they say in a talk show with you, but what they've done," Christie said. "And in two years, what we’ve done is to protect the most vulnerable here, even when we had to cut 13 billion dollars in state spending over two years."
OK, let’s judge the governor by his actions.
When Christie took office halfway through the fiscal 2010 budget year, his predecessor’s spending plan had a $2.2 billion shortfall. Christie used several measures to close the gap, including cutting $475 million in local school aid.
That’s $2.2 billion of the $13 billion Christie claims he cut. It’s at this point that the governor mixes real money with a theoretical figure.
Much of Christie’s claim hinges on a $10.7 billion structural deficit the state’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Service projected for the fiscal 2011 budget year. The structural deficit measures how much money the state would need if current services and revenues remained the same and all statutory spending obligations were fully funded.
However, the budget supersedes state statute. So, although certain levels of spending on different programs may be required, the governor can sign a budget that does otherwise.
And that’s largely how Christie handled the structural deficit in his first budget. He skipped a $3.1 billion pension payment and didn’t fully fund the school aid formula or property tax rebate program, among other measures.
So, Christie didn’t cut that money. He never spent it.
"While $13 billion might represent the total deferrals and non-funding what otherwise would be required programming, the actual cuts in state operations, in state government, were substantially less than $13 billion," said Raphael J. Caprio, a Rutgers University professor who researches local and state budgeting and finance.
And the structural deficit didn’t go away. For the fiscal 2012 budget year, OLS projected a structural deficit of about $10.5 billion, nearly the same size as the previous fiscal year.
Though Christie uses the structural deficit to his advantage when discussing his first budget, he dismissed the fiscal 2012 calculation as the "old way of budgeting."
PolitiFact New Jersey sought a response from the governor’s office last week, and Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak issued a reply, admitting the governor got it wrong but criticizing our methods. "This is just ridiculous. Do you people ever just let something pass as a plain-as-day slip of the tongue, human error? Of course he didn’t cut spending by $13 billion," Drewniak wrote in an e-mail.
Drewniak, referring to a list he provided of statements Christie made at town halls and other forums, also said: "My point in sending you all those instances of where he accurately explained the budgets, cutting spending and combined deficits was to illustrate the point that of course he knows what he cut from the budgets, and that he has explained it many times."
The governor has cut state spending. The percent change differs depending on the point in time the governor’s first budget is compared with the budget he inherited. Either way, it’s a decrease of less than $3 billion.
Joseph Seneca, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said Christie has tried to make fundamental changes in state spending so the structural deficit doesn’t widen. "He’s lowered actual spending and that’s sort of a new fiscal world for New Jersey," he said.
The governor said "we had to cut state spending by 13 billion dollars over two years."
That’s not true. Christie decreased state spending, but the total doesn’t near $13 billion.
Christie’s claim hinges largely on a $10.7 billion structural deficit. He used the measurement from his first year in office to his advantage. But the next year, he dismissed the structural deficit as the "old way of budgeting."
We rate the claim False.
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