Christie calls on Democrats to cooperate in pension reform

Gov. Christie hands back a newly autographed copy of a Time cover to Carol Greaney of Summit, N.J., a friend of Christie's late mother.
Gov. Christie hands back a newly autographed copy of a Time cover to Carol Greaney of Summit, N.J., a friend of Christie's late mother. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2014

STIRLING. N.J. On the heels of his budget address, Gov. Christie on Wednesday pushed the need for pension changes to a receptive town-hall meeting audience in predominantly Republican Morris County, pledging to take "extreme measures" if Democrats do not heed his call to cooperate.

Describing himself as "the adult in the room," in contrast with legislative Democrats, who said after his speech Tuesday that the state's rising pension costs did not demand changes, Christie told about 500 people at the Long Hill Community Center that New Jersey could wind up like bankrupt Detroit if something is not done.

"If we don't get this monkey off our back, of pension, health benefits, and debt service, we are never going to be able to grow as a state," Christie said.

As during Tuesday's speech, Christie did not detail any proposed changes to the pension system. His $34.4 billion budget includes a record $2.25 billion pension payment, as mandated by the law he signed in 2011 requiring public employees to pay more toward their pensions and the state to make full payments into the system.

Christie said Wednesday that he had "tried to be a nice guy yesterday," refraining from demanding that lawmakers pursue his ideas in favor of initiating a conversation. He said he would no longer be held back by the politics of running for reelection.

"My name is not going to be on the ballot again in this state," said Christie, who was elected in November to a second term, the limit under state law. "I'm on the back nine. When you're on the back nine and you don't have to worry about playing another front nine, your only obligation is to tell people the truth."

Though he drew a sobering picture of the state budget, Christie, who lives in Morris County, seemed spirited on his home turf, lacing his remarks with jokes and a few jabs.

"We're all from New Jersey. You know what that means," he said, as he began to take questions from the crowd. "If you give it, you're getting it right back."

He drew applause when he said his budget plan included no tax increases for the fifth year in a row, adding that he had vetoed proposed increases by Democratic lawmakers.

"If they get a little crazy and send me another one, don't worry," he said. "I've got the veto pen ready."

Democrats, led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), have accused Christie of not doing enough to grow the economy, pointing to revenues that lag administration projections. They vowed before Christie's speech to oppose any budget that didn't include a full pension payment, suggesting that Christie might scale back the obligation.

Sweeney said after the speech that the pension reform he joined with Christie to pass had put the state on the right track, and "we need to stay the course."

In an apparent reference to Sweeney, who some believe is positioning himself for a gubernatorial bid, Christie urged town-hall attendees Wednesday to hold Democrats accountable for making pension changes and noted that a new governor will not be sworn in for four years.

"Let's not start running for governor now," Christie said.

As during a town-hall meeting last week, Christie didn't get a single question about the George Washington Bridge traffic controversy that has dogged his administration and clouded his presidential prospects.

Nor was he pressed on Sandy recovery, amid scrutiny into his administration's distribution of federal dollars.

Instead, he fielded personal questions, on topics ranging from services for autistic young adults to the Family Court system and a local landfill controversy.

He resurrected a familiar line of attack while fielding a complaint from a woman about her divorce case, telling her to take her complaint to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. "This is what I'm talking about with the judiciary all the time," Christie said. "They get these black robes on and they forget."

Most of the questions weren't contentious; one man welcomed Christie to ride along with his squad of emergency medical technicians. Another man, who said he was a registered Democrat, told Christie: "I consider myself among the silent majority in this state who support you. Please don't be distracted."

One woman, who turned out to be a friend of Christie's late mother, asked him to sign a copy of Time with him on the cover.

As he signed it, a woman in the crowd shouted the only outburst of the day, demanding that Christie take back his veto of an anti-fracking bill.

"I won't," Christie said to applause.


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990

@maddiehanna

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