New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delivered his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature Tuesday in Trenton. In a speech that was part victory lap and part strategy session, the governor said New Jersey had rebounded from the dire straits it was in when he took office last January, and promised to keep the state on the same course in the coming year.
Christie said his administration would focus on three key areas in 2011: state spending, pension and benefit reform for public employees, and education reform.
Christie said his fiscal 2011 budget, enacted with only minor changes by the Democratic legislature last June, had reduced spending by 9 percent from the prior year, closing a projected $11 billion deficit without raising taxes. The budget accomplished this by making cuts – some as much as 39 percent – in every department in state government. It also contained cuts of more than $445 million in aid to municipalities and $800 million in state aid to schools on top of $475 million in education spending that was withheld from the prior year.
The governor said his budget for the next fiscal year will not restore those cuts, but will continue to reduce spending in an effort to undo New Jersey’s structural budget deficit.
“We can’t continue to spend money we don’t have. We can’t print money, and we can’t run deficits. So we have to continue to make some very tough decisions about what we can afford and what we can’t,” Christie said. “Next month, I will present to you my budget for fiscal year 2012. I will guarantee you this: It will be balanced, and it will not raise taxes.”
“[W]e need every department of state government to start from the bottom up and plan not what they want to cut from last year, but only what they absolutely must fund this year. I am fighting this fight because we have to be truthful about what we can’t afford . . . . I am asking for shared sacrifice in cutting what we don’t need so that we can invest in what we absolutely do need. So I ask you to join me in cutting the popular in order to fund the necessary,” he said.
Christie hinted that his budget may include tax cuts in addition to the spending reductions, but he did not provide any details, saying only that any tax reductions he proposes will be part of a comprehensive tax reform package and, “enacted in the context, and only in the context, of a balanced budget.”
The governor’s second and third agenda items, public pension and benefit reform and education reform, promise to put him on course for another year of clashes with the New Jersey Education Association, the union that represents the state’s public school teachers. Christie’s battles with the NJEA were the defining feature of his first year in office, often resulting in high profile victories for the administration.
In what may be seen as a nod to his critics, who have complained that he balanced the state’s budget in part by forgoing a scheduled $3 billion payment to the pension system, Christie said the state should begin making payments into the system again. But he tied future payments to passage of a package of reforms.
Telling retirees and public servants, “I am fighting for your pension,” Christie proposed raising the retirement age, reducing or eliminating cost of living adjustments, and requiring greater contributions from public employees to the system. Christie said that unfunded liabilities in the pension system are slated from $54 billion today to over $180 billion in 2040 if no action is taken. “Without reform, the problem we face is simple – benefits are too rich, and contributions are too small, and the system is on a path to bankruptcy,” he said.
On education, Christie cited the opening of six new charter schools in New Jersey last year and pledged to charter more next year, publicly thanked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for his gift of $100 million to Newark’s public school system, and lauded former Washington D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee – who was in the gallery for the speech – for her message of reforming the nation’s public school systems. Christie asked Rhee to serve as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education last year but was quietly turned down.
Aligning himself with Rhee, Christie said it was time for, “a national conversation” on lifetime tenure for public school teachers. “Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure to perform,” Christie said. “The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now.”
Christie’s proposal would cut “out of classroom” costs to focus on instruction, improve teacher evaluation and give schools more flexibility to remove underperforming teachers, and replace seniority with individual merit in teacher salary and staffing decisions. Most of all, Christie said the measure of the state’s commitment to public education must change. “We must end the myth that more money equals better achievement,” Christie said. “It is a failed legal theory — and we can no longer waste our children’s time or the public’s money waiting for it to finally work.”
Despite media characterizations of the governor as combative and uncompromising, Christie is popular with the public in New Jersey and is seen as a rising star in national conservative circles. A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University-Public Mind poll found the governor’s job approval rating at 53 percent, with 36 percent disapproving of his performance. Those are strong numbers for a Republican chief executive in a traditionally blue state. Christie’s no nonsense style enabled him to get much of his agenda enacted in his first year with little resistance from the legislature. His popularity and the steady approach of New Jersey’s legislative elections in November should help him repeat that feat in 2011.