WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Christie Doubles Down as Dems Push Back
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
One year into Gov. Christie's tenure, the Democrats, who control both houses of the legislature, are still struggling to get even a quarter of the media attention that he gets daily.
In his first State of the State address, Christie pledged more budget austerity and a roll back of public employee benefits. And he escalated his battle with the state's teacher's union that has catapulted him to national prominence.
Christie did try and strike a bi-partisan tone saying that in his first year with the help of the Democratically controlled legislature, New Jersey had backed off the abyss of a fiscal meltdown — balancing its budget while not raising taxes.
But he said with another looming multi-billion dollar budget gap the state has to continue to make cuts and demand major concessions from public employees on benefits won in more prosperous times.
And for the first time Christie, a long time critic of the state's teacher's union, called for the abolition of tenure protections for teachers.
Democrats countered that Christie's local aid cuts had merely pushed up local property taxes by double digits. Democratic Assembly Budget chair Lou Greenwald said Christie's cuts in municipal and local school aid was. Cost shifting that helped spike property taxes.
"Let's have a true conversation about getting off of property taxes as the sole source of funding of local governments and stop giving tax breaks to the millionaires and the wealthy," said Greenwald. "Give those breaks to homeowners around the state."
The state faces a more than $10 billion budget gap as well as more than $50 billion dollars in an unfunded pension liability. Democrats said Christie balanced the last budget by forgoing a scheduled $3 billion dollar pension payment.
Christie said he will pay into the fund but only after there has been systemic reforms like a higher retirement age for public workers.
While the Democratic legislative leadership has found common ground with Christie on things like the two-percent property tax cap, they think his overall world view is badly skewed.
Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney said that, so far, the governor's approach was only benefiting the state's wealthiest households.
"And the only people in Chris Christie's New Jersey that do well are the millionaires," Sweeney said. "They are the only ones. They're the only ones that got a tax cut. Forty thousand for millionaires -- they're the only ones."
Christie said the state can only prosper by cutting spending, reducing regulation and not raising taxes. The Democrats have tried not to just be reactive to Christie and have passed an ambitious 30 bill package aimed at targeting tax cuts and incentives to encourage businesses to hire. It is now on Christie's desk and the prospects are not great for his signature.
No doubt Christie's well delivered attack on teacher tenure — calling for its complete abolition — assures he'll continue to be the darling of MSNBC's Morning Joe and Fox News. The chances of it actually coming to pass in a state capital where the legislature is controlled by Democrats is remote.
But Christie, with his national mega-phone, is changing the conversation. Democrats and the NJEA (New Jersey Education Association) now have to come up with a counter offer to increase teacher and school accountability.
In perhaps his most impassioned moment in the speech, Christie said time is running out for the state to zero in on how to turn around 200 failing public schools that have a collective enrollment of 100,000 students.
But Democratic Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver said turning around the schools could not be done without uplifting the communities where they are. She said they often were in some of the very neighborhoods hit hardest by Christie's cuts.
"But we want to have a discussion about failing schools at the same time that we have discussion about supports to the families that those children come from."
Next month Christie comes back to the legislature with his budget plan for next year.