At Haddon Heights meeting, Christie pushes bail changes

Ricardo Rivera of Oaklyn is booted from the town-hall meeting after heckling Gov. Christie.
Ricardo Rivera of Oaklyn is booted from the town-hall meeting after heckling Gov. Christie. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 27, 2014

Gov. Christie used a dramatic anecdote about a Trenton shooting to pressure lawmakers Wednesday into passing a measure that would let judges deny bail to defendants with a history of violence - a proposal that appears to have hit a roadblock in the Legislature.

During a town-hall-style event in Haddon Heights, Christie told an extended story about a man charged with shooting attendees at a funeral in Trenton.

The Republican governor said the man, Samuel Vincent, was out on bail at the time of the April shooting. He was again released on bail after his arrest in the shooting - when he got in more trouble, Christie said, for hitting a police car after fleeing a scene in a stolen vehicle.

Lawmakers, who are working to send a 2015 budget to Christie by the end of this fiscal year June 30, have "got five days to pass this," Christie told a crowd of about 300 in the Atlantic Avenue Elementary School gymnasium.

"If they don't, remember who they're protecting. They're protecting the Samuel Vincents of the world," Christie said.

He also argued that the policy change would benefit Camden, saying "more people might be willing to go to" the city if "we actually took off the street those folks who demonstrated to a judge" a risk of violence.

Both the Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers have touted a need to change the state's bail system - to keep violent offenders behind bars, but also to lessen the number of poor defendants charged with nonviolent crimes who are held because they cannot afford bail.

But legislative sponsors say the push has been stunted by disagreement over a ballot question that would ask voters to change the state constitution to allow judges to hold defendants without bail.

The issue is which defendants could be held.

"At the moment, there is not an agreement on the structure of that question," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester). "The governor's office would prefer it to be different."

Lawmakers have tailored the provision to apply to defendants facing a narrower field of charges than Christie would like, Burzichelli said. A Christie spokesman did not comment on whether the governor had a disagreement with lawmakers on the constitutional question.

While lawmakers do not need the governor's approval to get the question on the ballot, accompanying the measure is a bill sponsored by Burzichelli that would guarantee people denied bail a speedy trial within a certain time - and that would require Christie's signature.

"Nothing advances until everybody agrees," Burzichelli said. "We're not going to amend the constitution unless we have an understanding of what a speedy trial is."

Also at Wednesday's event, Christie reiterated that he would veto tax hikes Democrats were advancing as part of their budget proposal.

"Let me guarantee you what's going to happen: the same thing that's happened every time they have sent me an income-tax increase. I will veto it," Christie said, drawing applause.

The Senate and Assembly Budget Committees approved bills Tuesday night that would increase taxes on the state's highest earners for three years - taxing income above $1 million at a new top rate of 10.97 percent - and would impose a 15 percent surcharge on the corporation business tax for one year.

The tax increases would help underwrite the $34.1 billion Democratic plan, which includes making a $2.25 billion payment next year into the state pension system.

Christie, by contrast, has proposed putting $686 million into the system next year in his $32.7 billion plan. The governor announced in May that he planned to backtrack on the escalating payment schedule included in a pension-reform deal during his first term. The deal was to eliminate a revenue shortfall of $2.7 billion in the current fiscal year and next.

Christie, who for months has been calling for unspecified changes to reduce the pension system's costs, said Wednesday that the state "cannot tax enough to keep up with the payments."

He said he does not yet have a plan for changes to the system, but that experts are working on proposals he will review.

He singled out the defined-benefit structure of the state plans as a problem, saying the model - which guarantees workers a set amount of benefits - was "becoming a dinosaur."

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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