Legislation is pending on changing teacher tenure rules, raising the minimum wage, and eliminating unused sick-time payouts for public workers. Then there's the issue of revamping the state's system of higher education. But the question looming over this budget, due July 1, and overshadowing other issues is whether it will include income-tax cuts the governor has proposed.
"I'm going to fight for the next 19 days," Christie said, referring to the budget deadline, which is also when lawmakers traditionally head out of town for vacation. "At times it may not look pretty, so avert your eyes. … When I fight, I fight to win."
He told the crowd that in the coming weeks, given the heated rhetoric that this month is known for, "invariably I'll say something I shouldn't say."
The crowd of about 750, one of the largest to show up for a Christie town hall — and he has held 83 of them during his term — was just fine with that. Those who were called upon for questions were uniformly supportive during the nearly two-hour event. Christie did not get a single adversarial query. The matter of the proposed merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University, one of the most controversial issues in South Jersey, never came up.
The budget fight, and Christie's efforts at getting his proposed phased-in 10 percent income tax cut through the Democratic legislature, was the centerpiece of his remarks. Perhaps to add urgency to the governor's proposal, there have been hints in recent days that there could be a government shutdown if the budget does not include a tax cut, with Christie's chief counsel, Charles McKenna, sending a memo to cabinet members instructing them to make contingency plans for a July 1 shutdown.
The emergency plans, which include compiling lists of essential employees and of government services that would continue to be provided even if the state can't pay its bills, are due Monday. A copy of the memo was obtained by The Inquirer after being first reported by the Bergen Record.
Christie made no mention of the memo Tuesday. But in an unusual move his staff handed out a document listing his accomplishments and itemizing his plans for the next budget — including slight increases in education aid to local districts.
In his remarks in Haddonfield he mostly concentrated on his proposed tax cut, despite lower-than-expected revenue numbers that critics say make such a tax cut untenable and irresponsible. Instead of shelving the proposal in light of lower revenues, the governor has said he plans to increase borrowing for transportation to balance the budget.
Christie noted that he has support from state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) on cutting taxes. Sweeney has offered his own version of a tax cut. His plan would provide income tax credits to residents making $250,000 or less, equivalent to 10 percent of their property taxes. It's a plan the governor seems to find palatable. He doesn't like the Assembly Democratic leaders' tax-cut plan, which would tax millionaires and increase the credit to 20 percent. Christie's plan is a straight 10 percent income tax cut, phased in over four years.
It is unclear whether Sweeney is working with Christie or the Assembly Democrats — or both — to reconcile the plans. Christie made sure to mention that he was late to the town hall Tuesday because he was on the phone with Sweeney — and he said he planned on talking to the Senate president again that night.
Such friendly gestures do not extend to Assembly Democrats. Specifically, Christie called out Haddonfield's local legislator, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D., Camden).
The governor accused Greenwald of wanting to let municipal officials impose income and sales taxes in their towns in order to lower property taxes. In fact, Greenwald has not proposed such a plan this year, although he has in the past.
"He's a good-looking guy with nice suits, talks real smooth, so maybe we'll actually buy it," Christie mocked the majority leader. "But we've seen this movie before, folks. ... Beware of these people who tell you that the way to lower your taxes is to raise your taxes."
Greenwald, who was not at the town hall, responded in an e-mail: "Unlike the governor, who is going around the state at taxpayer expense desperately trying to salvage his tax breaks for the wealthy, Assembly and Senate Democrats are working together to get property tax relief for the middle class."
Greenwald also cited the state's unemployment rate, which is higher than the national average, and a recent ranking from the federal government that listed the state 47th in economic growth. He said school aid had been cut under the Christie administration in Haddonfield, while taxes in Haddonfield went up nearly 22 percent.
Greenwald's colleague, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden-Burlington), released a statement timed to Christie's arrival saying he has "some explaining to do to Haddonfield women." She cited his cuts of women's health care programs and the gap in pay between men and women, which she said he has not addressed.
Neither topic came up at the town hall.
With both Assembly Democrats and the governor saying they're working with Senate Democrats on a final budget deal, other pieces of pending legislation could also be involved in such talks. But Christie made it clearer than ever Tuesday that he would not support one priority of Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver's (D., Essex): raising the minimum wage above the current $7.25. He said he doesn't like it that the bill makes the increase effective immediately (July 1), and he doesn't believe it should mandate future increases by tying the wage to the consumer price index.
Next stop for Christie is Galloway Township, where he has a town hall scheduled for Wednesday.
Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/ChristieChronicles.