Christie, Democrats Begin Talks in Earnest

After months of political theater, New Jersey's Democratic legislative leaders and Governor Chris Chrisitie are holding substantial discussions on what tools they can give local governments to cut costs.

Christie and the Democratic leadership have made some progress and are meeting regularly, looking for common ground. Meetings on Monday led to meetings on Wednesday and they will be back at it on Thursday.

To press his case, Christie appeared Wednesday at a town hall meeting at the Shriner's Salaam Center in Livingston. That's the town where his family moved to in 1967 from a Newark experiencing social upheaval.

With less than two weeks to go in the legislative session, Governor Christie used the forum to bang the drum for the 30 bill 'tool kit' he insists will cut costs for local governments and keep property taxes down, proposals were submitted months ago.

He said the speed with which the legislature acted on an anti-bullying bill shows the Democratically-controlled legislature can move quickly when it wants to.

"So they went from no bill, to a bill, to committee passage, to final passage in 14 days. They can act when they want to," said Christie.

On January 1, a two percent cap imposed by Trenton on local property taxes will take effect. Local officials from both parties are concerned they will have to layoff workers to balance their budgets if they don't get some of the potential relief from Christie's proposed tool kit, which includes civil service and arbitration reform.

Both Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver have been working on counter-proposals.

At the Livingston Town Hall meeting, Christie said without action the state's public pension system is headed for a major crisis.

"An independent study just came out that says New Jersey is one of 11 states that's pension system could be bankrupt by 2020," said Christie. "That's nine years from now."

Christie said the state's public employee pension system is currently $46 billion underfunded. He blames both political parties for the crisis. But he says a rollback in benefits, as well as an increase in what public employees pay into to the system, is the only way to save it.

Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney said he is willing to negotiate with Christie, but that the governor must make the $512 million contribution the state is required to make into the pension system first.

At Wednesday's town hall, Egg Harbor Township Schools Superintendent Dr. Scott McCartney said he traveled close to four hours from Southern Jersey to ask for Governor Christie's help. McCartney said his district's state funded high school construction project had turned into a nightmare that was now tens of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Christie said he had put a former Federal prosecutor Mark Larkins in charge of the School Construction Authority and that an action plan for stalled projects like Egg Harbor would be out shortly.

A 2005 Inspector General report of on the state's School Construction Authority found the program was plagued by wide spread waste, fraud and abuse.

Omar Dyer, a Jersey City community activist, asked about a recent Federal audit that found serious fault with how New Jersey handled a weatherization program for low income households funded by Washington.

"That was a program that was handled very badly in the past administration and we did not fix it when we got here," conceded Christie. "We are getting it fixed now and we won't loose the federal money."

Dyer also asked about the fiscal wisdom of the state hiring a high-priced Washington law firm to fight the Federal Government's demand that NJ repay $271 million for preliminary work on the proposed ARC tunnel under the Hudson that Christie canceled.

The governor said however the case resolved itself, the state would come out ahead because it was off the hook for billions of dollars in cost overruns.