Christie Beats the Teachers' Union in Budget Battle

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won a decisive victory last week in his battle against Democrats and powerful public-sector unions over his plans to cut state spending when voters rejected school district budgets across the state.

A centerpiece of the governor’s plan to close the $11 billion budget shortfall was the cancellation of nearly $500 million in state aid to school districts in the current fiscal year, and a proposed reduction of more than $800 million in school aid in next year’s budget.

Christie told the Democratic-controlled legislature that his plan would only cut aid in an amount equal to the surplus held by individual districts and would result in significant savings for the state without cutting instructional budgets in the districts.

The teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), mounted a public campaign against the cuts, airing ads on local television accusing the governor of “attacking teachers, school bus drivers, and lunch aides.” In the ad, the union proposes tax increases over spending cuts as a means of balancing the state’s budget. “The governor can solve this problem immediately by continuing a tax on the rich—something they’ve been paying already,” the ad says.

That tax, actually a surcharge on households making over $400,000 in income, lapsed last year in the middle of the hotly contested gubernatorial campaign under the administration of former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Gov. Christie points out that Democrats could have reinstated the tax before he took office, but chose not to. Christie defeated Corzine by running on a strong anti-tax platform, pledging not to sign any tax increase into law if elected, and has claimed that mandate as justification for his spending cuts.

Christie countered the union’s tax increase proposal with a challenge: He called on teachers to voluntarily agree to a one-year wage freeze and a permanent 1.5% of their salary to go toward the cost of their health insurance. The governor said that doing so would save school districts across the state more than the $820 million he was proposing to cut, resulting in no net reductions for education. 

When the NJEA balked at this proposal, Christie took his case to the people. The governor said that New Jersey voters should reject the budget in any school district in which teachers refused to accept the wage freeze and health plan contributions.

“I just don’t see how citizens should want to support a budget where their teachers have not wanted to be part of the shared sacrifice,” Christie said.

On Tuesday, voters in the state decided overwhelmingly in the governor’s favor.

In an average year, nearly 70% of school budgets in New Jersey are approved. But last Tuesday, almost six-in ten-school budgets went down to defeat, a stunning reversal. Now, school budgets that were rejected will go to town councils for mandatory spending cuts or approval over the will of the voters. It seems unlikely in the current political climate that many town councils will choose to substitute their judgment for that of the voters. It is nothing short of a huge political victory for the governor.

Reacting to the vote, Christie called the results, “an extraordinarily clear signal” and “a seismic change that reflects … a changed attitude in New Jersey.” Still, Christie sought to distance himself from any personal political benefits from the vote, casting himself as the people’s messenger.

“[The people have] had enough,” Christie said. “They want real, fundamental change. We didn’t lead in that regard. We merely gave voice to what the people of New Jersey were already feeling.”

The NJEA issued no comment on the results.

Christie moved quickly to capitalize on the vote, calling on the legislature to approve an amendment to the state constitution limiting property tax increases to 2.5% a year, to cut pensions and benefits for public sector workers, and to change the collective bargaining process to help reign in expanding budgets at the state and local level.

“We must arm the municipal governments with the tools they need,” he said. “We need to give people the opportunity to control their own property taxes."

Christie has been gaining national attention for his strongly conservative approach to closing New Jersey’s huge budget deficit. Tuesday’s victory will only serve to increase his national profile. New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio said the school budget votes in New Jersey were “a national model for fundamental change” and pledged to follow Christie’s example in Albany if elected.

Christie will now seek to push his $29 billion budget through the legislature ahead of the June 30 deadline.  Tuesday’s results make it far more likely that his spending cuts will make it through largely intact.