Even before the autumn presidential campaign season heated up, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had already spent roughly half of the current year out of his state in pursuit of the Republican nomination. As chairman of the GOP’s gubernatorial campaign apparatus, he spent more than a third of 2014 out of state. Those absences -- coupled with the state’s economic woes -- led a majority of his constituents to tell pollsters they think he should resign.
But New Jersey citizens aren’t the only ones who look askance at public officials’ absenteeism. Four years ago, Christie signed legislation imposing a strict residency requirement on all state employees -- including himself. The law is designed to remove public officials from office if they spend most of their time out of state.
The so-called “New Jersey First Act” of 2011 aimed to ensure state government employees actually live in New Jersey full time. Christie sent an initial version of the bill back to the Legislature for technical changes, but said, “ I commend the sponsors for their efforts to increase employment opportunities for New Jersey residents, by ensuring that citizens throughout the state enjoy access to public positions in their communities." He signed the amended bill in May of that year.
A Christie administration fact sheet says “all employees are covered by the law,” which imposes a strict residency requirement as a condition of continued employment by the state. The fact sheet says residency is defined as meaning "the state (1) where the person spends the majority of his or her nonworking time, and (2) which is most clearly the center of his or her domestic life and (3) which is designated as his or her legal address and legal residence for voting."
The Christie-backed law explicitly says it covers “state officers” in the executive branch. It says any public official violating the mandate “shall be considered as illegally holding or attempting to hold” a public office. If a person fails to satisfy the residency requirement within any 365-day period, the law says, “that person shall be deemed unqualified for holding the office.” The legislation empowers New Jersey state courts to oust the violator from office if “any officer or citizen” of New Jersey files a formal complaint.
State officials may avoid the law’s requirements, but only if they formally apply for an exemption to a commission comprised of a majority of Christie appointees. That commission has approved roughly 975 such requests, a Politico analysis of state data showed. But it has also rejected requests from employees who want to relocate to neighboring states to live near family members. The Christie administration’s website does not show that Christie applied for an exemption from the law in the last few years.
Christie’s office did not respond to questions from International Business Times.
"Christie squeezes by while other more deserving state workers did not," Democratic state senator Raymond Lesniak said. "He clearly is violating the intent and spirit of the law."
During the 2016 campaign, the balance between presidential candidates’ campaign work and their official duties has already become an issue. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s opponents have attacked him for missing 36 percent of Senate votes while mounting his White House bid.
But for Christie the matter may be more than just optics because of the New Jersey First Act that he signed. The Christie administration fact sheet notes the residency requirement applies to “any person who was a New Jersey resident” when the law went into effect. The fact sheet also says a state employee whose actions effectively change their residency status “does not get a window of time to move back” to New Jersey to avoid the law.
Earlier this year, Christie’s Republican colleagues in the state Legislature proposed rescinding the 2011 law. However, even that bill, which has not passed, proposed preserving the residency requirement for the governor, cabinet members, state legislators and judges.
Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski told IBT that when it comes to determining residency: “There’s not a bright-line test, and there are a lot of factors that go into determining where you are a resident. The colloquialism is where you intend to return to, where you make your permanent home. I don’t think anyone would argue that Chris Christie is not intending to return to Mendham.”
Wisniewski, however, cited the law Christie signed and added: “It points to a continuing pattern of hypocrisy: the governor is saying the spirit of the rules are good for other people but not for me.”