Governor Christie played to a packed house in Haddonfield Tuesday, and even hardened critics like me came away impressed.   He was funny, he was direct, and he came across as authentic: the non-Romney and, perhaps even more striking, the non-Corzine.

Without the stridency of some of his fellow GOP governors, Christie managed to seamlessly sell to his  sympathetic audience a package of GOP “reforms,”  including lowered benefits for state workers, smaller government in Trenton, opposition to hiking the minimum wage, and, most critically, a tax cut so “you can spend more of that hard-earned money you have earned.”

Good feelings notwithstanding, there remained an elephant in the room.  Christie led off his remarks chiding the legislature for not acting on his proposals, comparing their delays leading up to the June 30 date ending the legislative session to children who perpetually put off book reports due at the end of the semester.  He got a lot of nods of approval from that analogy, but the obvious question never came up.  After endorsing the most extensive reorganization of higher education in the state in modern memory in January, months later his office still has not provided any of the costs involved. Of course, the governor’s motivation is not rooted simply in the natural procrastination of the delinquent student. His delay is strategic.

Some time in the middle of taking questions from the audience, Christie elicited a comment he could have written himself, praising his bipartisan cooperation with Senate President Steve Sweeney.  Christie’s response was vintage: citing his differences with Sweeney—notably on his nominations for vacancies on the state supreme court–while praising him to the hilt for working out other major issues.  Implicit in his praise was Sweeney’s willingness to push through a budget with a tax credit he could embrace as the keystone to “the New Jersey comeback.”

So here we are: the costs of reorganizing higher education remain hidden, thereby enhancing the chance that Sweeney can push through his radical restructuring plan, while at the same time shielding the governor from further claims that the state treasury is currently incapable of sustaining a tax cut.

To date, it would appear that Rutgers will bear the costs associated with Sweeney’s bill.  To the charge repeated by Sweeney and fellow sponsor Donald Norcross that reorganization is intended to lift New Jersey’s rank from a miserable 47th for per capita in spending for higher education, the bill brings absolutely no new resources.

In an effort yesterday to pacify the objections of Rowan University’s trustees to the oversight governing board established in Sweeney’s legislation, Norcross said it was necessary to generate external grant money.  How he thinks a fictive entity called Rowan-Rutgers will be competitive in the national competition for research funds, he didn’t say. Clearly he knows very little about how research funds are obtained or how seriously severing Camden from Rutgers would compromise its ability to continue attracting top faculty and the dollars they bring with them.

So the elephant in the room with Christie was all about money.  It’s not just that he would attack Abbott funding to poor school districts to help lower property taxes elsewhere, or that he would veto a minimum wage hike.  He would also be willing to roll the dice and worse on keeping public higher education affordable and competitive by damaging Rutgers beyond repair while bringing little to Rowan worthy of its elevated research status.  That’s not the mark of a comeback. That’s old-time Jersey deal-making. In this way, Governor Christie is more like the predecessors he chooses to ridicule than he would have us believe.

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