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You won’t see this in Christie campaign ad: NJ finishes 42nd

Saturday, 13 Jul 2013 | 11:00 AM ET
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Seeking a second term as New Jersey governor with a possible eye to a White House run in 2016, Chris Christie is heavily touting his business record, as he did at the ribbon cutting of real estate firm Realogy's new corporate headquarters in Madison, N.J., last month.

"We made a commitment from the beginning to grow New Jersey's economy. The only way to do that is with the private sector," Christie said.

Christie often points to his administration's "partnership" with business, including deregulation, tax cuts and incentives.

Christie's Plan to Get NJ on Top
CNBC's Scott Cohn is working on this year's "Top States for Business," and New Jersey's Chris Christie has a plan to get New Jersey on top.

But he is unlikely to point to New Jersey's standing in our America's Top States for Business rankings. It has declined since he took office in 2010.

(Read More: Worst States for Business)

That year and in 2011, New Jersey finished 30th overall. In 2012, the state plunged to 41st. For 2013, it drops another spot to 42nd.

To some degree, the Garden State is a victim of a changing competitive landscape, as well as a business culture embedded in the state long before Christie took over. But our study shows Christie's efforts to change New Jersey have largely been unsuccessful compared to other states.

With more states than ever touting their low Cost of Doing Business, that criterion carries extra weight in our study this year. That puts old, Northeastern states like New Jersey at an instant disadvantage. Indeed, the state comes in 42nd in that key category.

(Read More: America's Most Expensive States to Live)

New Jersey is quite simply one of the most expensive states to do business in. Office and industrial rents are expensive, wages are high. And with a corporate income tax rate of 9 percent on top of soaring property taxes, New Jersey has one of the highest tax burdens in the country. Christie has made a broad tax cut plan a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.

But it is not just New Jersey's tax rates that are a problem. The Tax Foundation's Scott Drenkard tells CNBC New Jersey's tax system suffers from some fairness issues. The already high taxes are levied on a narrow base.

"Some businesses are paying full freight—paying the full rate, and other businesses that are engaging in favorable activities are paying low rates," Drenkard said.

(Read More: States Bring Renewed Swagger to Top States 2013)

That unevenness in the New Jersey tax code is a direct result of a major push by Christie to boost business incentives. The state now offers at least five different corporate tax reduction programs, and Christie has awarded some $2.1 billion in subsidies since taking office compared with $1.25 billion in the prior 10 years, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank.

The incentives have helped Christie secure some victories, such as the Realogy corporate headquarters. The firm had reportedly been considering a move out of the state.

And Allergan opened a 93,000 square foot research facility in Bridgewater in September, after reportedly considering locations in California,Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

But incentives alone have not been enough to bring New Jersey in line with the national recovery. Unemployment remained above the national average at 8.6 percent in May, and the state's economy was growing at about half the national rate.

Christie vowed to make his broader tax cut proposal a campaign issue after failing to pass a tax credit plan in the latest budget. Opponents argued there was not enough revenue to justify the tax cuts.

(Read More: Categories & Criteria for CNBC's Top States for Business 2013)

On his campaign website, Christie claims he has already cut "$2.35 billion in job-destroying taxes." And he claims he is making New Jersey more business friendly.

"The Governor has also eliminated hundreds of confusing rules and regulations that put an onerous and unnecessary burden on New Jersey businesses," the site said.

New Jersey does log a solid improvement in our Business Friendliness category for 2013, but still finishes near the bottom at 41st in the category compared with 48th in 2012.

The libertarian Fraser Institute gives New Jersey below average marks for the fairness of its tax system, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform's annual ranking of state lawsuit climates puts New Jersey at 32nd.

New Jersey has a long tradition as a heavily unionized state, and Christie—perhaps bowing to political realities—has been courting many private sector unions in his re-election campaign.

(Read More: States Battle for Business)

A heavy union presence tends to work against states in our Workforce category, and Census figures show New Jersey remains among the most unionized states in the nation. But the state finishes a respectable 21st in the category this year compared with 28th last year. The higher than average unemployment rate means more workers are available, and many of them are well-educated and trained. New Jersey workers are among the most educated in the country, according to the Census Bureau.

And speaking of education, New Jersey surges to the No. 1 spot in our Education category for the first time, up from fourth place last year. Class sizes are low, the state generously supports its public schools, and high school test scores are among the best in the country.

For a politically ambitious governor whose state has typically struggled in our Top States rankings, that could be a small silver lining.

By CNBC's Scott Cohn. Follow him on Twitter @ScottCohnCNBC.

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  • CNBC's senior correspondent and lead investigative reporter, Scott Cohn also appears on "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," the "Today" and on MSNBC.

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