Christie Expected to Target Medicaid and Pensions in NJ State of the State

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will give his first State of the State address later today. Lawmakers, lobbyists and labor will be listening for hints about how he'll close the state's more than $10 billion budget gap.

He will hammer home familiar themes that have made him one of the kings of the GOP speaker circuit — education reform, fiscal discipline and holding the line on taxes.

Fairleigh Dickinson University political scientist Peter Woolley says Christie's biggest challenge will be how he follows up on his pledge to reform the state's public pension plans, which are currently underfunded by $54 billion.

"Pension reform in New Jersey is a ticking time bomb and there is little agreement so far how to get around this enormous unfunded debt," Woolley said.

Woolley said staying on the fiscal conservative message is paying political dividends for Christie. In FDU's latest Public Mind Poll released this week, Christie gets a 53 percent approval rating, with just 36 percent of surveyed voters disapproving.

"And so here's a guy who came into office really needing to wield an axe," said Woolley. "And of course he was happy to do it. I think there was some surprise that he really stuck very hard and fast to his vow not to raise any taxes."

Woolley said the latest polling came after the flap over Christie's decision to follow through on plans to take his children to DisneyWorld over the holidays, rather than stay in the state during the recent blizzard. Woolley says Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, who filled in as acting Governor during the blizzard and declared a state of emergency, also saw a bump upwards in the poll.

Phillip Kirschner, president of New Jersey's Business and Industry Association, said Christie's staying on a consistent message through his first year has the state's business community upbeat.

"I think the governor has done a great job, along with the legislature, in addressing some of the core issues that have really hurt New Jersey for a long period of time," said Kirschner. "We've been out of step with our neighbors in terms of what we've been spending."

Kirschner said Christie's refusal to hike taxes, cancellation of the planned train tunnel under the Hudson River and finding new developers to take over the stalled Xanadu project in the Meadowlands were all confidence-builders.

But Christie definitely has his critics. Transit advocates argue the state's bus and rail fare increases under Christie are a form of a tax hike. And some education advocates say Chrsitie cuts to public education have gone too deep.

Governor Christie decided against making the state's scheduled $3 billion pension payment last year, much to the consternation of the public unions. Historically, with the exception of Governor Corzine, past administrations from both parties have failed to make the required pension payment. Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney has said he is all for meaningful and substantial pension reform, but contends Christie must show good faith by making a substantial payment on the state's multi-billion dollar tab for public pensions.

Last summer, in an unprecedented move, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a cease and desist order against the state for "materially misrepresenting" for several years the fiscal health of its public employee pensions.

As part of his long term cost-containment strategy, Christie wants a higher retirement age for state workers, from 62 to 65. He also wants public employees to pay more towards their health care and retirement benefits to be more in line with what federal emplyees currently kick in. 

The governor has told reporters that he plans on using his State of the State address to press for continued fiscal discipline at all levels of New Jersey government. Since taking office last year Christie has found a willing partner in the state's Democratically-controlled legislature on several landmark measures, including a 2 percent property tax cap, that have been signed into law.

Frank Belusscio, with the state's School Board Association, said local school districts hope to hear in Christie's speech support for reforms that will give local districts more flexibility with their work force.

"Change in tenure, change in scope of bargaining, so we're looking for changes that will help school boards control costs," said Belluscio.

Belluscio said that cuts Christie made last year in state aid to local schools had prompted 80 percent of the state's close to 600 districts to lay off staff. Belluscio says with the drop off in federal stimulus aid to states, even tougher choices can be expected this year and next. 

Local superintendents and school boards will hear some of what they are looking for today. Christie will use his speech to take his fight for teacher tenure reform up a notch. Christie wants it to be easier  to get rid of underperforming teachers and says he wants to give distircts the flexibility to reward star teachers.

But Steve Baker with the New Jersey Education Association said Christie's past record of cutting education and his support for vouchers undermines his claim to being pro-public school.

"The governor has a strong privatization agenda," said Baker. "He's traveled around the country talking to pro-voucher, pro-privatization groups. You know, one way to advance an agenda like that is to starve the public schools."
Christie and the NJEA have been locked in a bitter rhetorical since early in his administration. Chrsitie has accused the teachers union leadership of trying to bully elected officials. The union has charged that Christie is building his national political reputation by bashing the union. Christie has repeatedly said the union is the biggest impediment to improving public school performance.

Christie has until next month's budget address to detail how he'll make up for the state's current $10 billion dollar budget gap. He has already gone on the record with 32 other Republican Governors petitioning President Obama to rollback federal mandates that determine how much Medicaid coverage states must extend to their low-income households.