Christie’s trips abroad carry costs and benefits
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie has stressed that his recent trips to Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom gave him an opportunity to promote New Jersey to international businesses and universities, although the junkets also beef up the Republican's foreign policy resume as he weighs a possible presidential campaign.
The trips have cost New Jersey taxpayers nearly $124,000. Direct benefits to the state are hard to quantify, but some academic institutions report positive results from the travels.
In Mexico last September, Christie signed a four-year, nonbinding agreement with government officials aimed at encouraging collaboration between colleges in New Jersey and Mexico through things like academic conferences, student and teacher exchanges and joint research opportunities.
One such deal appears to be taking shape. Patricia Donohue, president of Mercer County Community College, said the trip had resulted in a Mexican grant that will send roughly 30 students to the New Jersey college in July for a four-week immersion program.
In the United Kingdom, Christie focused on the state's pharmaceutical industry, including building ties between Rutgers and Cambridge universities. Speaking during his monthly radio show in February, Christie boasted about dividends he said came from the trip.
"We've already seen some good things happening and I'm glad that I made the trip over there. And I think you're going to see it bear real fruit for both Rutgers University and for folks in the biopharma industry here in the state," he said.
Debbie Hart, president and CEO of Bio NJ, a life sciences advocacy group, said the trip resulted in a memo of understanding between her group and its British counterpart, One Nucleus. The agreement, signed last week at a biotechnology conference in Philadelphia, says the two groups will work together to promote key reports and calls for each organization to "explore" hosting sessions when senior figures from either network travel in the other's region.
Promises of new jobs and investments have proven more elusive. And the results haven't impressed critics like Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive advocacy group.
"It's really hard to see much connection between the trips and breakthroughs in terms of the location of companies and jobs from the countries he's visited," said MacInnes, who said it was also difficult to untangle Christie's political ambitions from his busy international travel schedule.
The trips also raised questions about money and access. While taxpayers covered tens of thousands of dollars in security-related expenses, the bulk of the trips' costs have been paid for by Choose New Jersey, a nonprofit economic development entity founded by the Christie administration, run by his allies and funded through corporate contributions.
Many of the contributors do business with the state. The group is headed by Michele Brown, a close friend of Christie's who previously served as head of the state's Economic Development Authority.
Choose New Jersey has yet to disclose how much it spent on the trips and has repeatedly ignored requests for comment on its activities.
In a statement released through the governor's office, Brown lauded Christie for "opening doors for meetings with high-ranking trade, government and corporate officials, which allow us to build and cultivate relationships that are key to our future success."
She noted that building strong relationships with the state's international partners takes time.
Dale Eisman, communications director for the good government group Common Cause, said foreign travel was not unusual for governors, but he said the funding arrangement raised questions about what the companies expect to receive in return.
"That's the real question: What are they getting out of it in terms of access to the governor or enhancing their own business with the help of the governor and his clout?" he asked. He also argued that if the trips are legitimate state business expenses, they should be funded exclusively with taxpayer dollars.
Former Gov. Tom Kean, who traveled to China and South Korea to promote the state, said the trips were especially beneficial for smaller businesses that lacked resources to get their goods seen abroad.
He encouraged governors nationwide, including Christie, to spend more time in China. He also sounded a skeptical note when it came to who would foot the bill.
"I don't know who donated to Choose New Jersey, but you've just got to be careful that you go to places," he said, that will offer the most benefit to the state, "and not to the places those businesses want you to go."
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