New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addressed the state legislature last week, declaring New Jersey to be in a state of “financial crisis.” To combat the state’s fiscal woes, and the Democratic-controlled state legislature, Christie announced an executive order freezing state spending and unilaterally implementing spending cuts in 375 state government programs.
“Our state’s budget has been left in a shambles and requires immediate action to achieve balance. For the current fiscal year 2010, the budget we have inherited has a two billion dollar gap,” Christie said. “So today, I am beginning the process of fiscal reform and discipline. Today, we are going to act swiftly to fix problems long ignored. Today, I begin to do what I promised the people of New Jersey I would do. Today, I begin to give them the change they voted for in November.”
The actions Christie unveiled will affect interest groups that read like a laundry list of traditionally Democratic pet causes.
He told the assembled lawmakers that aid to education represented a large portion of the money yet to be spent in the current fiscal year. As a result, the governor announced that he would withhold $475 million in unspent school aid. In doing so, Christie stressed that his plan only withheld aid from individual districts in amounts equal to the surplus each district held.
Christie said that his formula — as opposed to a fixed across the board withholding – would prevent districts that rely heavily on state aid from going into deficit, while providing that “not one penny,” is taken from approved instructional budgets, and he addressed likely critics of the school aid plan critics combatively. “The union protectors of the status quo will claim otherwise. But once again, they will be proven to be self interested, and wrong,” Christie said. “We have not reduced school aid with an axe. We have done it with a scalpel and with great care.”
Mass transit is also slated for deep spending cuts under Christie’s budget freeze. New Jersey Transit, the nation’s fourth largest mass transit system will see its state subsidy cut by an unspecified amount. To make up the difference, Christie acknowledged that the agency would have to consider service reductions and fare hikes, calling these, “tough choices.” But the governor took the time to single out NJ Transit for past abuses and called on the agency to take a hard look at all aspects of its operations.
“New Jersey Transit will have to improve the efficiency of its operations, revisit its rich union contracts, [and] end the patronage hiring that has typified its past…the system needs to be made more efficient and effective.”
But by far the governor spent most of his time making the case for an overhaul of the state’s pension system. Christie said that the state could not in good conscience continue to contribute to a system that he said is, “out of control, bankrupting our state and its people, and making promises it cannot meet in the long term.” Again, Christie was aggressive in his dismissal of likely attacks from critics. He boiled their arguments down to one word; “unfair,” and said his critics shared that favorite argument with his nine-year old son.
The governor used two examples to demonstrate what he called the unfair nature of the retirement system for public employees in the state. In each case, he highlighted retirees who will receive much more — twenty-five to thirty times more — in benefits than they paid into the retirement system. “Is this fair?” Christie asked.
In an e-mail to HUMAN EVENTS Christie Press Secretary Michael Drewniak characterized the Democrats and interest group reaction to the governor’s actions as unhelpful.
“As you might imagine, not everyone has been receptive here in New Jersey. The response from many opponents — including the powerful public teachers union — has been to come out in full force to complain, distort, and attempt to blunt or derail reforms,” Drewniak wrote. “These are painful but necessary budget cuts and reforms. The governor wants very much to work in a bipartisan way to fix our budget, our pension and health benefits system, and is open to better ideas if anyone has them. We’re still waiting.”
Christie’s spending freeze is particularly noteworthy because it is happening in New Jersey, the epitome of a Democratic-machine state. Before Christie, no Republican had been elected to statewide office there since 1998, when Governor Christine Todd Whitman won her second term. Christie’s willingness to take on entrenched Democratic interest groups has begun to win him fans in a national conservative movement hungry for leadership. If he is able to bring New Jersey’s budget back from the brink of insolvency, beating the Democrats in the process, Christie’s national will only profile grow. Republicans may have a rising star growing in the Garden State.