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O’Malley’s claim of a New Jersey decline under Gov. Chris Christie

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CBS

“When it comes to being effective at creating jobs, improving schools and expanding opportunity, [Gov. Chris Christie’s] record in New Jersey has not been a report of governing for effectiveness. His bond rating has been downgraded by two of the bond rating agencies. His unemployment in New Jersey is one of the higher unemployment rates in the country at 9.4 percent. Last year, New Jersey created no net new jobs. And his schools, because of the choices he’s made to cut education funding, have actually been declining in their national ranking.

So that’s not a record of leadership and governance and effectiveness. So whatever the entertainment value is, it’s not effective governing.”

— Comments from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sept. 2, 2011.

Our experience is that governors receive too much credit and criticism for conditions they don’t fully control — such as the economy. But O’Malley’s comments provided an ideal opportunity to check up on Christie’s limited record — he hasn’t even been in office two years – while the speculation about his potential presidential run reached a pitch.

Alas, Christie announced Tuesday afternoon that he would not seek the GOP nomination for president. But we decided our efforts shouldn’t go to waste. Might as well see what the Republican field is missing, right? And you can’t let a politician rattle off accusations like O’Malley did without checking his claims.

The Facts

New Jersey’s credit ratings did indeed drop this year with all three of the leading credit-rating agencies.

Fitch downgraded the state’s rating to AA- in August, placing it three levels below the highest triple-A rating. The firm said it expected New Jersey’s financial situation to continue declining despite Christie’s reforms to what was then a badly underfunded public-employee pension system; the cuts garnered much praise from Republicans.

Fitch cited long-term challenges including property tax relief, school funding and infrastructure needs as reasons for the expected decline of the Garden State’s fortunes.

Standard & Poor’s this year dropped the state’s rating from a double-A to AA-, putting it on par with Arizona, Kentucky and Michigan. Only Illinois and California fared worse than that lowly group.

New Jersey and Nevada were the only states to receive an S&P downgrade.

Moody’s also downgraded New Jersey from an Aa2 to Aa3, the agency’s fourth-highest rating.

Christie spokesman Mike Drewniak said “the agencies would have rated us a lot worse if the governor wasn’t doing what he’s doing.”

O’Malley has room to talk when it comes to the ratings. Maryland maintained its triple-A rating with all three credit agencies this year, although Moody’s slapped the state with a “negative outlook” tag.

The most common S&P rating so far this year is the double-A, shared by 17 states.

In terms of O’Malley’s unemployment claims, the facts show that they are true on the surface, but the numbers could use some context.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that New Jersey employment numbers dropped about 1 percent between January 2010 and January 2011. The state also ranks 36th in the nation for unemployment, keeping it just a notch ahead of the lowest one-third of states.

BLS data show that New Jersey cut 29,000 government jobs in 2010, which didn’t help the state’s employment numbers that year — even though Republican budget hawks applaud the move.

O’Malley walks a bit of a thin line by saying New Jersey has “one of the higher” jobless rates. He’s also being selective with his numbers.

New Jersey’s unemployment rate jumped from 9.1 to 9.5 percent during Christie’s first year in office, but it’s highly debatable whether he should take the blame for that. The state has also shown a tiny improvement since then, with unemployment dropping to 9.4 percent as of August.

New Jersey also had a lower jobless rate than the country as a whole until about August. The national average increased from 9.3 to 9.6 percent between 2009 and 2010. It then dropped to 9.1 percent in August.

Today, New Jersey is one of 19 states faring worse than the country as a whole.

O’Malley doesn’t have much room to talk. Maryland’s unemployment numbers rose at exactly the same rate as New Jersey’s between 2009 and 2010, increasing from 7.1 percent to 7.5. The state, ranked 15th best for unemployment, dipped back to 7.3 percent in August, beating New Jersey’s improvement rate by just 0.1 percent.

As for O’Malley’s claims about education, the Democratic Governors Association supported his remarks with rankings from Education Week. The lists show that New Jersey dropped from fifth to seventh in the nation during the year Christie took office, but it’s held steady since.

Regardless of the decline, New Jersey schools still hold a lofty spot in most rankings. It’s among the best in a number of categories, including highest AP scores, highest high school graduation rate and third-most students going to college. Eighth-graders in the state rank No. 1 for writing and third for math in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The Pinocchio Test

O’Malley was correct that New Jersey’s credit rating fell, but Christie isn’t entirely responsible for that. He’s been in office less than two years, and he inherited a massive budget deficit, not to mention a pension problem that was draining government coffers.

O’Malley was also right about New Jersey unemployment, but the numbers need context. Again, Christie had barely settled into the governor’s mansion when the biggest employment dip occurred, and the numbers have risen slightly toward the end of his second year.

On top of that, Maryland hasn’t done so hot itself, as the state’s job-loss rate basically shadowed that of New Jersey during Christie’s tenure.

The education remark is where O’Malley’s claims look especially dubious. He relied on rankings from only one source without taking into account the many areas where New Jersey students lead the nation. Overall, the state’s schools rank in the top tier by most measures.

On a final note, politicians from both parties need to decide once and for all whether it’s acceptable to blame their predecessors for economic problems. They can’t have it both ways.

President Obama refuses to own the nation’s jobless rate, instead blaming George W. Bush for the long-lasting downturn. Christie’s camp takes the same approach, saying things could be worse for New Jersey without actions the governor took during the past 21 months. Sounds oh-so-familiar.

O’Malley earns two Pinocchios for his lack of context on New Jersey’s jobs numbers and credit-rating drop, as well as his misleadingly selective use of a single ranking for New Jersey’s well-above-average schools.

Two Pinocchios

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