Last week, Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration settled New Jersey's long-standing environmental lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp. for pennies on the dollar. For a decade, the state had been seeking $8.9 billion in damages for pollution at two refineries in the northern part of the state, and yet Christie's top officials abruptly proposed closing the case for just $225 million.
In the aftermath, as environmentalists express outrage and legislators move to block the settlement, the question on many observers' minds has been simple: Why did Christie settle?
One possible answer is just as simple: money -- more specifically, campaign cash.
According to federal records, Exxon Mobil has donated more than $1.9 million to the Republican Governors Association since Christie's first run for governor in 2009. That includes $279,000 during Christie's election and reelection races, and also another half million when he chaired the organization in 2014. Additionally, one of Exxon's law firms in the New Jersey case also donated $30,000 to the RGA since 2013.
Another possible answer could be relationships.
Christie's first attorney general worked for Exxon for seven years. His deputy chief of staff in 2014 left the governor's office for a job with Exxon's lobbying firm in Trenton. And weeks before the settlement was announced, one of his cabinet secretaries took a job with Exxon's New Jersey law firm.
Still another possible answer about why Christie settled the Exxon case could be found in a little-noticed provision his administration slipped into the annual budget in 2014.
The language in question empowers the governor to divert money obtained from environmental litigation away from pollution cleanup programs and into the state's general fund, where it can be used to fill budget gaps or finance corporate subsidies. The provision explicitly takes precedence over other state laws designed to direct proceeds from environmental lawsuits into New Jersey's environmental protection programs.
Because the provision is temporary, remaining in force only until a new budget is enacted, critics say that it effectively encourages Christie's administration to settle cases as quickly as possible to free up cash that the governor can then tap however he sees fit. The most expedient way to accelerate a settlement is to lessen the fines sought from the company facing the lawsuit.
"This is money that rightfully belongs to the people of New Jersey to make up for the injury to the environment," said Jeffrey Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Instead, the governor is diverting it for other purposes. It's a twofer: Reduced settlements help the oil companies before Christie's presidential campaign, and Christie can quickly get more money for the record amounts of corporate subsidies he is handing out."
So which answer is correct? Is the settlement a product of campaign cash, relationships or budget machinations? It is hard to say for certain, but in all likelihood it is probably a little bit of all three -- plus some presidential campaign calculation sprinkled in.
In politics, as rare as it is to see a policy decision made on the substantive merits of an issue, it is even rarer that a decision is only about one thing. Most often, decisions represent a mixture of motivations. In agreeing to such a small settlement in the Exxon case, Christie placates his politically connected colleagues and gets himself some extra cash to spend on his budget's new tax cuts. He also gives a gift to an oil industry donor just as he starts raising money for a 2016 White House bid.
Sure, the settlement may not be great policy, but it may be shrewd short-term politics. That divergence is hardly surprising -- at this moment in history, good policy and good politics are not often synonymous.
Even as Republicans boast of their chances to take over the United States Senate come November, their party's governors across the country are facing dimmer prospects. From Georgia to Alaska, right-wing ideological rule imposed by GOP chief executives has left voters disappointed, disillusioned and angry.
The problem isn't that these governors failed to implement their promised panaceas of tax cutting, union busting and budget slashing, all in the name of economic recovery; some did all three. The problem is that those policies have failed to deliver the improving jobs and incomes that were supposed to flow from "conservative" governance. In fact, too often the result wasn't at all truly conservative, at least in the traditional sense -- as excessive and imbalanced tax cuts, skewed to benefit the wealthy, led to ruined budgets and damaged credit ratings.
Consider Gov. Scott Walker, famous for surviving the recall effort that Wisconsin's outraged citizens mounted in response to his attacks on labor. While seeking to end collective bargaining in 2010, Walker also passed a series of regressive tax cuts, which he vowed would bring at least 250,000 jobs. By sharply reducing state aid to schools and local governments, he temporarily closed a structural deficit -- but this year, with state tax revenues declining precipitously in the wake of his tax cuts, Walker is facing a $1.8 billion budget deficit. And as for the jobs, most of them never materialized. Wisconsin is near the bottom of Midwestern states in creating new jobs.
In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback was equally faithful to right-wing orthodoxy. With the advice of Arthur Laffer, the genius responsible for Ronald Reagan's exploding deficits in the 1980s, Brownback imposed a historically huge tax cut on the state. Declining revenues meant huge reductions in state services, especially education. And as furious Kansans have discovered, the Brownback experiment has achieved poor employment growth combined with ... yes, a massive budget deficit of nearly $350 million this year.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett's first budget in 2011 included major tax cuts for corporations, which cost about $600 million annually. By this point, it should be obvious who was required to pay for those favors: the children served by the state's education system, who saw a billion dollars in cuts to their schools and programs, from kindergarten through college.
This year, the state is facing a budget shortfall of over $1 billion, but Corbett doesn't seem to have learned much. He has demanded further income tax cuts that will benefit the wealthy -- and will cost Pennsylvania another $770 million in annual revenue. And what about his promise that the state would become No. 1 nationally in job creation? As of last summer, it ranked either 47th or 49th, depending on the data measured.
So far, so feeble -- and it is scarcely more impressive in the other red states whose governors face re-election this year.
The politician tasked with rescuing his party's beleaguered governors is none other than their colleague from New Jersey, Chris Christie, who serves as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. From that perch, of course, the blustering Christie hopes to run for president -- an aspiration that may recede still further from his grasp with each lost governor's mansion this fall. Emotional as he tends to be, Christie surely empathizes with his fellow governors -- because his very similar policies have landed New Jersey in an equally precarious condition.
So it is puzzling to hear voters in places far from the Garden State -- such as Iowa and New Hampshire -- tell reporters that they admire Christie because he "saved New Jersey." Evidently, they don't know that the state's finances have been sufficiently terrible to provoke not one but two downgrades in its credit rating this year alone.
But bad bond ratings aren't the only woe confronting Big Boy, as President George W. Bush called him. Christie is perfectly suited to his leadership role among the GOP governors -- if only because his economic record may well be the very worst of any American governor in either party. The question that voters must answer, this November and two years from now, is when these failed fiscal and economic "experiments" -- and the suffering they have caused -- will at last end.
Some people have a myriad of recurring nightmares about being publicly embarrassed, such as rising to give a speech and realizing you know nothing about the topic -- then realizing you're naked.
New Chris Christie Scandal: NJ Gov Gave Pension Fund Billions to Wall Streeters Who Bankrolled His Campaigns
New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie has turned his state’s multi-billion dollar pension fund into a giant political extortion racket, where top employees at 43 different investment firms were given contracts to manage $14 billion in retirement accounts after giving $11.6 million to Republican Party operations that helped elect Christie governor and fueled his rise as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.