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.
Fresh off his legislative victory curbing state worker benefits, New Jersey governor Chris Christie spoke with WNYC's Bob Hennelly about his bi-partisan strategy to put the deal together, the future of the state's public broadcasting assets and his administration's efforts to re-brand the stalled Xanadu mall project as the American Dream in the Meadowlands.
On the pension deal
Bob Hennelly: Governor, thanks for taking the time and joining us today. You have said that the passage of the public employee benefit reform package is an example of bipartisan collaboration on a major piece of public policy that should serve as an example for Washington. Could you expand on that?
Governor Chris Christie: Sure, Bob, you know, everybody who participated in this myself, Senate President Sweeney, who is the Democratic Leader in the Senate, and Speaker Sheila Oliver who’s the Democratic Leader in the general assembly — we all had to make a decision. We knew how grave the crisis was in our pension and health benefit system was, we knew how it was choking the tax payers and we had to decide if we were going to come together and craft a solution that everyone could live with or if we were going to make it a political issue. And I think we all decided collectively at different times that we were going to try to solve this problem together and I think it’s a great example of, everyone had skin in the game, everyone made some compromises, but we stuck by the principals of making sure that we were going to make the pension system solvent again and we were going to make sure that there was appropriate sharing of costs when it comes to public sector workers.
BH: It’s been portrayed as a big defeat for organized labor, but looking at the fine print there were a couple of things that jumped out at me — one, the change in the language that got rid of the provisions that tried to steer public employees about going out of state and for care and then, two, another provision which -- now is this right? -- gives them the potential to go to court if the state does as it has done so often in the last seventeen years and does not contribute to their pension as required.
CC: Yup, both of those things were things that Steve Sweeney and Shelia Oliver wanted in order to try to let the unions know how serious we were about everybody stepping up to the plate and doing what we were legally required to do. And so I don't look at this as a defeat for anybody. I see it as a victory for the taxpayers of the state, they’re going to get some relief, and, for public sector workers, they’re still going to be offered affordable health insurance for themselves and their families, from the day they’re hired until the day they die. And, they’re going to have solvent pensions that are going to be able to pay them, rather than go belly up some time in the next seven to ten years.
BH: Once the new pension rates and health care premiums fully kick in, it will have a significant impact on public employee households. What would you say to the teacher I met at your Fair Lawn Town Hall who said her husband had lost his job and has three boys at home and that the increase benefit costs would mean she would have to leave New Jersey?
CC: Well listen, the fact of the matter is if we don’t have a greater sharing of these costs, who’s supposed to pay them? The unemployed person down the street who is in danger of losing their house because they’re out of work? Or the people who are struggling to put their kids through college? Or the people who are struggling to put food on the table? Because it’s not like these benefits are paid for by no one currently. They’re paid for by the taxpayers through their property taxes and we’re not talking about them paying 100 percent of their premiums. We’re talking about on average. The average public worker in New Jersey, when this is fully phased in, will pay 20 percent of their premiums, which means the taxpayers are still picking up 80 percent of the costs. That hardly seems to me to be draconian.
BH: Governor during the hearings on the public employee benefit bill some of the most supportive testimony came from Democratic mayors who said between foreclosures and property tax appeals they are at the point of having to layoff current workers to keep their benefit commitments to the rest of their workforce. Is that where we are now?
CC: Yeah, I think we are, and the problem for the municipalities and the counties are that these costs continue to rise unabated and they couldn’t sustain any longer, that type of spending without significant property tax increases and remember, you know we put a two percent cap on property taxes, now we are reforming the health and pension system, this is going to help to give people property tax relief and give municipalities some more flexibility within their own budget.
On the future of NJN
BH: You had a big win yesterday [Thursday]. But you did have one setback. The Assembly rejected your proposal to have WNET Channel 13 takeover the state's public broadcaster NJN. Critics of the deal say they are concerned WNET won't deliver the quality news product Michael Aron with NJN has been putting out.
What's at stake with this deal?
CC: What’s at stake is, I really believed that the state-owned operation of media ended with the Soviet Union, and I don’t think we should be in the television business. I think its an inherent conflict of interest for us to be in the television business and for reporters to be state employees and I also think that the expense at this time is not justified into the budget. The Senate now has to consider this, and I hope that the Senate will decide, I hope, that this is a good deal, you know, and WNET, led by Neil Shapiro, is a premiere organization and they have made promises to us contractually, in writing, about the amount of New Jersey programming and the type of New Jersey programming that is going to be on the air. So I don’t think that anyone can validly say, given if they look at the NET deal, that it’s anything but a really good deal for the people of New Jersey. They’re going to establish not only the outlets they have now but also a studio at Rowan University, put permanent cameras in the Senate and the Assembly so that people can watch that more frequently, as to what’s going on, on the floor of the legislature. And so, I just think this is much ado about nothing in the sense that these folks going forward are going to understand that everyone has to share the sacrifice.
BH: As you know, WNYC's parent New York Public Radio and WHYY in Philadelphia are set to acquire the nine NJN radio stations. Is that part of your proposal affected by a negative vote from the legislature?
CC: No, it doesn’t have an impact. The only aspect of the veto on the deal is they’re just taking up the portion of the NET takeover of NJN. As I understand it, regardless of what happens, the purchase of the radio stations will continue to go forward.
On the Xanadu development at the Meadowlands
BH: As Governor your tool box for fixing the macro economy that's so tied into national and global trends is limited. But who have put a lot of chips on the table with your plan to provide $200 million in economic aid to the Triple 5 Company that runs the Mall of America to re-brand the stalled Xanadu project in the Meadowlands. That's up for a vote Monday. What is that $200 million...I don't want to say government giveaway but how would describe it for voters?
CC: Listen, what we’re trying to do is provide incentives for places like the American Dream at the Meadowlands to be built, and in these difficult economic times, the state is going to become a partner, a small partner in the project, but a partner none-the less, and we’re going to get our money back once the project is successful. So I think this is a great idea for New Jersey. II don’t know that I would have built Zanadu in the first place, Bob, but you know when I got here II already had that huge building in the middle of the New Jersey meadowlands right along the turnpike and route three, and to me it’s not an option to let it fail at this moment, because that’s not without costs either. That would cost at least a hundred million dollars to take the place down. So, I think this is the right way to go, the folks that we’re dealing with are the proprietors of the Mall of America in Minnesota and the West EDMONDTON mall in Canada, and they have a spectacular track record for, once they get into a job, doing the job the best way, and I think you’re going to see, in time for the SuperBowl in 2014, an operational American Dream amusement park and entertainment center.
BH: So you have a lot riding on how the rebranding of Xanadu goes. In 2014 the eyes of the world will be on the Meadowlands Stadium, no?
CC: There’s no doubt, and so that’s why we got to get moving on this thing, make sure that construction starts this fall so that we’re going to be ready in time for the SuperBowl.