Christie making a push for the 'big things'

Posted: February 10, 2011

"Big things." The phrase first popped up in Gov. Christie's State of the State address last month. Christie used it again in a recent speech to the state Chamber of Commerce, then offered it up Wednesday at a town hall meeting in North Jersey.

Next week, he plans to take the slogan to a conservative think tank in Washington, where he will deliver an address titled "It's Time to Do the Big Things."

There are three "big things," as Christie sees it: fiscal discipline, public-employee benefits reform, and an overhaul of the education system. These things are so big, so sacrosanct, he says, the Democrats are scared to touch them.

"They just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk," Christie told an audience of more than 500 in Union City on Wednesday. "The problems are too big, and we've been waiting too long for solutions, so I am impatient."

He then used a bit of breaking news to underscore his point: Standard & Poor's had just downgraded New Jersey's bond rating from AA to AA-minus - the fourth-highest level - due to the state's massively underfunded pension and health-benefits obligations.

Christie said the Democrats' failure to act on pension reform was to blame for the rating drop, which could make it more difficult to borrow money and, therefore, fund the state.

"For five months, [Democrats] ignored me," said Christie, who proposed a four-part plan on pensions in September. "They in the Legislature have acted for the special interests, not the public interest."

He chided the Democrats, particularly Senate President Stephen Sweeney, for not posting their own pension bill online until Monday, after he called them out on it.

Christie looked at it "briefly." "Didn't look like much. Looks like the special interests wrote it," he told those at the town hall.

Christie also made fun of the Democrats - and got laughter in traditionally Democratic Union City - for spending too much time on bills about disposing used mattresses and creating a venison-donation program.

"I'm disappointed that the governor would lie about this," Sweeney, of Gloucester County, responded Wednesday afternoon. "And I'm offended by it. I'm truly offended by it."

Rather than dodge the "big things" that could fix the state's fiscal fiasco, he gave the governor a 107-page draft of the Democrats' pension bill last week, Sweeney said. It wasn't posted online because the Senate had not met, preventing the legislation from being introduced, a party spokesman said.

Now the bill is online, while the Republican version is not yet on the state website.

Sweeney rejected Christie's contention that Democrats had caused the drop in the bond rating, noting that Christie, like previous governors, failed to make a $3 billion pension contribution last year.

"I've got a bill that blows the entire system up, brings private-sector principles to a public-sector pension," Sweeney said. Among other things, his plan would allow workers and employers to contribute more if the pension fund dropped too much.

As of June 30, the state's unfunded pension liability was $53.9 billion, up from $45.8 billion - about 18 percent - in 12 months.

Christie's plan would raise the retirement age for state workers and teachers to 65, up from 62; roll back a 9 percent benefit increase granted to workers a decade ago; eliminate cost-of-living increases to retirees' pensions; and force employees to contribute a greater percentage of their wages toward their pensions.

"I am doing this because I want to save pensions, not eliminate them," Christie said.

Sweeney predicted that some of the governor's proposals would be in court for years, stalling change.

Pensions were the topic du jour, but they aren't the only "big thing" that has put Christie on a collision course with Democrats and public-sector unions.

Christie wants teachers to contribute more toward their health benefits. He also wants to begin merit pay and abolish tenure. The governor already has increased the number of charter schools, and a bill could soon land on his desk that would give poor children in underperforming school districts scholarships to attend private or parochial schools.

In Union City, Christie took knocks at the state teachers' unions.

Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said Wednesday that every pension proposal would be considered, even those that would force employees to increase contributions. But the NJEA won't go along with anything that allows Christie to skip mandated pension payments.

"The state for two decades has utterly failed to fund the pensions, and it's created a situation unsustainable going forward," Baker said.

Christie's staff is framing the governor as a national leader on tackling the "big things." A news release issued by his administration Wednesday included statements from nine Democratic governors who "echo" Christie's call to fix the underlying issues, such as the skyrocketing cost of benefits that are causing such problems in state budgets.

At a speech to the Chamber of Commerce last month, Christie said even President Obama was "understanding that the big things need to be tackled, that the big problems in our state and our country can no longer be ignored, can no longer be sugar-coated, can no longer be put off for another day to be solved."

The danger, Christie said, is that Democrats will not have the guts for the "big things" because they want to be liked instead of respected.

"I want your respect first," Christie said.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz

at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com. Read the "Christie Chronicles" blog at philly.com/christiechronicles.

|
|
|
|
|