- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Democratic and Republican candidates competing to succeed Gov. Chris Christie are leaning heavily on their biographical backgrounds in their sales pitches to voters.

But when it comes to issues facing New Jersey the state’s economy is emerging at the top of the list ahead if the June 6 primary.

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THE ISSUE

New Jersey has rebounded from the Great Recession. The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.7 percent from a high of almost 10 percent when Christie took office and after years of missed revenue projections, the state’s receipts stabilized last year. But there are warning signs on the horizon, too. With a public pension carrying billions in liabilities, the state’s payments are set to grow next year; the next governor will likely face a $1 billion hole from lost revenues because of tax cuts enacted by Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature; education funding has lagged a constitutionally mandated formula to the tune of about $8 billion over Christie’s administration; and the state still leads the nation in property tax rates.

The candidates for governor have laid out an array of ideas on the economy on their campaign websites, but many of the proposals are vague.

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CANDIDATE POSITIONS AND PROMISES

Democrat Phil Murphy has proposed a public bank aimed at putting state money to work for what he calls local projects as well as other investments including student loans. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs Executive and Obama administration ambassador to Germany, is the party’s leading candidate thanks to a $10 million personal loan to his campaign and a slew of endorsements. A key part of his stump speech also highlights what he calls building the “innovation economy,” including investing in science, technology, engineering and math education. It’s unclear how exactly he would achieve the goal.

Former Clinton administration treasury official Jim Johnson, a Democrat, calls for infrastructure and transportation investments. How exactly those would be paid for in a state budget with little room for discretionary spending is unclear.

Democratic State Sen. Ray Lesniak has a reputation for supporting animal rights and environmental issues. He says making the state more affordable is a key goal and calls for property tax code changes for seniors and low-income residents. The economy isn’t a focus of his campaign website.

Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski has staked a large part of his campaign on his previous support for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and casts himself as progressive in the race. The issues page of his website highlights his call for tuition-free college for families with income below $125,000 and for funding the state’s school-aid formula. Not mentioned on the page? “Economy.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno looks to be in a tight race with Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli for influential county party support, though she has the edge in terms of endorsements so far. Her candidacy has focused heavily on her experience on a red-tape-review commission under Christie that she says has helped lead businesses to stay in New Jersey. Her plan also calls for killing a $300 million statehouse renovation and selling off state property.

Ciattarelli’s stump speech hinges on what could be the most specific plan put forward. He calls for cutting corporate business taxes, which he says would make the state friendlier for employers. He also says he would raise income tax rates on those who earn more than $750,000 as a way to get buy-in from Democratic lawmakers to finance the cuts.

Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers is the lone GOP candidate who backed Donald Trump during the election. Like the president, Rogers focuses heavily on “jobs.” He calls for investing in transportation, the state’s film industry and agriculture. There are few details.

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WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

The focus at this early point in the campaign on biography is standard since many New Jersey voters don’t know the candidates well yet, said Seton Hall associate political science professor Matt Hale. Candidates might also be reluctant to hammer out detailed answers to questions about how they would handle the economy because specifics could alienate voters.

“These are questions candidates might not want to answer because it could mean (higher) taxes or cuts. And those are dreaded words,” said Charles Steindel, a former Christie administration economist.

Peter Woolley, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, points out very few voters participate in the primary. Indeed, the biggest group of voters - registered as unaffiliated - cannot participate in the primary, which is open only to registered Democrats and Republicans.

“It’s really all about convincing a relatively small group of active voters that they are credible and have a shot at winning,” he said.

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Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini

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This is the first in a weekly series that will look at issues facing New Jersey ahead of the June 6 primary. The general election is Nov. 7.

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