Christie Takes on NJ Teachers' Union

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New Jersey public school districts are predicting significant teacher layoffs and program cutbacks if the state legislature goes along with Gov. Chris Christie's call for a budget cut of more than $800 million.

Christie says the state's shortfall of more than $11 billion left him with few options. This morning, WNYC's Bob Hennelly spoke with Christie, who's in south Jersey taking his case for fiscal austerity directly to voters and addressing a statewide convention for charter-school boosters. Hennelly answers some questions about the budget and New Jersey schools:

Initially the Christie Administration signaled that local school districts could see a 15 percent rollback. What he actually proposed was just a 5 percent reduction. And the headlines this morning called those cuts "devastating." What's the governor's response to the blow back from his budget proposal?

Well he does appear to have hit the state's wealthiest districts hardest, with some of them slated to lose well over 90 percent of their aid from Trenton. In urban districts like Newark, the cuts were kept under 10 percent. As for Christie, he seems really eager to take on the state's public education lobby and the teachers' union. He seems to think both are out of step with most voters.

"I expected this type of response because these are dramatic cuts, but these are cuts that have been coming for a long time," Christie says. "Last year, Gov. Corzine used a billion dollars of federal stimulus money that he knew was not going to come back in order to fund K-12 education. Now what we need to decide is, how we want to spend our money on education."

The school districts counter that the cuts come as they have to deal with spikes in everything from fuel to health-care coverage for their employees.

In today's Star Ledger, Christie said the state's teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association, had bullied previous administrations from both parities. With that kind of rhetoric, how does he expect to get a budget deal with the Democratic legislature, which sees the union as a key ally?

This morning he said the union needed to recognize that in the current economic climate, with unemployment near ten percent, teachers have to be willing to compromise.

"What I meant was, do they want to lose members by teacher layoffs or do they want to come and be responsible and re-open contracts? That's the question. I don't think it makes a bit of difference in how our children learn whether a teacher pays for a portion of her medical benefits or whether the school district pays 100 percent of those costs," the governor says

Christie says he's confident that he can get the same kind of bi-partisan support from Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver for major public employee pension reform he got from Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, who pushed the package through his house a few weeks back.

So what do critics of Christie's budget suggest as an alternative to budget cuts?

They want the state's wealthiest households to pay more in taxes, so they want the re-imposition of New Jerseys' half-millionaire tax. But Christie said the Democrats have only themselves to blame for its lapse.

"Let me tell you something, if the Democrats wanted this tax on people and small businesses making over $400,000 a year, they could have passed it. It expired in December," he says. "They could have passed it during lame duck and they didn't."

As a matter of fact, politically the Democrats remain divided on this issue after Christie's impressive 100,000-vote victory. It's not a united Democratic party.

The national debate on health care will have implications for the states. Where does Christie stand on the Obama plan?
He said the Obama plan is a work in progress, so he can't really get a bead on it's fiscal impact. He does say, however, that around the state, he's finding small- and mid-size employers reluctant to put new people on because they are concerned about what the imposition of the federal mandate might mean for their bottom line. So they're holding off until the dust settles and that is having an effect on New Jersey's trying to pick up on whatever recovery might be out there.

And in other state news, New Jersey's making plans for another bear hunt?

If it's spring time we've got to talk about the bear hunt. The fish and wildlife council came out with a scientific report that says the bear population went from 500 some 20 years ago to over 3,000, with the number of interactions that are of concern between the public and the bears increasing. So they've called for a bear hunt. The report has been accepted by Acting DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. There will be public hearings and probably legal action because in the past this has been a real hot-button issue. But ultimately, Christie says he's for the hunt.