Broad Strokes and Uphill Battles in Christie's State of the State

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Mike Kelly, columnist at New Jersey's The Record, ran down Chris Christie's State of the State speech in New Jersey.

In his first-ever State of the State address Tuesday afternoon, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie kept the focus on three big issues: balancing the budget, fixing the state's pension system, and reforming public education.

Those issues are all part of the same beast. One of the reasons New Jersey's budget is so out of whack is that the pension system doesn't have the money to pay for all of the benefits promised to all of the public sector employees. Given that teachers are unionized public employees, and that Christie called New Jersey's public school system "obscene" in his speech on Tuesday, the interconnectedness of these problems — both fiscally and politically — becomes all too apparent. 

Mike Kelly said Christie has his work cut out for him.

New Jersey has a constitutional requirement that the budget be balanced, but more importantly, what is underlying all of this debate is how can they reduce the tax burden on or at least stabilize it for everyone, yet maintain the size of the government and the services they provide. They are in a $54 billion shortfall with the pension system...That is almost twice size of the annual state budget in New Jersey. At same time, New Jersey has over 200 bridges in the state that are considered structurally deficient. We don't have the money to pay retired workers, and don't have the money to fix our bridges. Christie is facing a problem of dollars and cents, not only cents, but sense, which is how do you figure out how to manage this government where there aren't enough resources.

Kelly at least saw good omens in Christie's State of the State address. Though the governor avoided providing specific details about some of his proposals, the overall tone of the speech and its focus on big, pointed issues was welcome.

What these addresses usually become, he goes around the room and talks about the environment, law enforcement, transportation, and you can see the various lobbyists and interested parties perk up whenever he mentions their little cookie jar, so to speak. He didn't do that this time. He talked only about very specific issues: education, the pensions problem, taxes. And he was scarce on specifics with taxes, but he did say that he got through the two percent cap on property taxes, and that is an important achievement.

Kelly said that the pension problem will be Christie's biggest fight in 2011. When he does get to the specifics of how life and livelihood will change for public employees, Christie can expect a lot of backlash from voters, thanks in large part to the sheer volume of New Jersey citizens employed by the government.

This battle is going to be, I think, extremely bloody. Almost 1 in 5 voters in New Jersey is somehow connected to somebody with a public employee's job. Basically 20 percent of the electorate, and that's a significant voting bloc. Christie is talking about taking that lifestyle of high pensions, paying very little for health care as you retire, and turning that wagon over and spilling everything out on the sidewalk saying, "Listen folks, we need to rearrange this."