TRENTON — Facing his final year in office with poll numbers at an all-time low, Gov. Chris Christie took a different approach Tuesday to his seventh State of the State speech.
Rather than rattle off a long list of issues to address in the coming months, Christie dedicated almost his entire speech to drug addiction, an issue he has focused on in the past.
In his speech to a joint session of the state Legislature, Christie proposed a plan to expand access to treatment and remove barriers to employment for recovering addicts. He called for a reduction in the prescription drug supply. And he announced a new education curriculum on opioids.
“This is the single most important issue to every New Jersey family touched by this, and perhaps the most important issue I will have the chance to address while I am governor,” Christie said. “I want us to make New Jersey the example for how our entire nation can compassionately and effectively help families going through this personal hell.”
Nearly 1,600 people in New Jersey died from drug overdoses in 2015, an increase of about 20 percent over 2014, according to data from the state medical examiner’s office. Most of those came from opioids, including heroin and fentanyl.
Many initiatives announced by Christie will be carried out through the executive branch. His administration launched a one-stop website for addicts to find treatment. He will direct the state attorney general to limit how much opioid-based pain medications health care providers can prescribe patients. And he will have the education commissioner develop new curriculum in every school on opioids.
But he also called on lawmakers to help him. He challenged the Legislature to pass a bill within 30 days to prevent heath-insurance companies from denying coverage for the first six months of inpatient or outpatient drug-rehabilitation treatment.
Christie told personal stories about addiction, including one of A.J. Solomon, the son of the Board of Public Utilities commissioner and a state Supreme Court associate judge, who overcame his addiction and is opening a substance-abuse treatment center. Christie also retold the story of a personal friend who was found dead at 52 with empty bottles of Percocet and vodka.
“We have to start treating this disease and not just jailing its victims,” Christie said. “We need to give them the tools they need to recover.”
The speech drew praise from advocates in the state’s drug-treatment community. Debra Wentz, chief executive of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, called Christie’s speech “inspirational and powerful.”
“It’s extremely powerful to take ownership of eliminating the stigma against addiction and to expand multiple (ideas) addressing that,” Wentz said. “The stigma is there. But when you have someone who is the governor who repeatedly makes this their platform, it’s powerful and it’s strong.”
Christie enters his last year with an approval rating of just 18 percent among state voters, according to a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll. His numbers dropped after the Bridgegate scandal, his failed presidential campaign and an unpopular increase to the gasoline tax, among other issues. A bill to let him cash in on a book deal and raise salaries for top state officials collapsed after a public outcry.
Christie’s speech also came after being passed over for a top job in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration, despite embracing Trump early.
With little political capital left, a focus on tackling drug addiction could help Christie rebuild his legacy. It’s an issue with bipartisan support, including from local lawmakers.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, has made battling drug addiction a top priority. After the speech, Mazzeo commended Christie for his dedication to the issue.
“I think Gov. Christie hit on everything we’ve been working on in Atlantic County,” Mazzeo said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. I heard about the five-step plan that he had. It’s terrific.”
Democratic legislative leaders were receptive to Christie’s call to pass the bill mandating health coverage for drug treatment. But they said they wished Christie had touched on other issues plaguing the state, too, such as school funding and high property taxes.
“He pointed out an extremely important issue. There are many families who have dealt with this issue,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney. “But there are many more issues that this state needs to deal with.”
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he was disappointed and frustrated that Christie, “who came in with so much promise, squandered his opportunity to help working families with real reform and instead put his ambition above the needs of our families.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.