For the past 180 days, no other state capital has matched the excitement and change of Trenton, New Jersey. On his 6th month anniversary this week, Gov. Chris Christie (R) expressed gratitude for the reforms which have been enacted and promised to bring “even more change” in the future.
The Garden State has become a focal point for the conservative reform movement, and Christie has a firm commitment to reducing the state’s tax burden. He says “New Jersey doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem and it is not our intention to tax our way out of this problem.”
When he took office in January, the state had a huge deficit and Democrats said his large budget reductions were DOA, or “dead on arrival.” Democrats are in firm control of the New Jersey Assembly and State Senate.
They once again tried to erase the deficit with increased taxes, which the Governor promptly vetoed. A six month battle was waged and both sides threatened a July 1st government shutdown. Democrats in the legislature spent weeks giving speeches claiming the reductions were catastrophic and could not be endured.
The Christie budget is painful and includes fee hikes and school aid reductions, but the Governor says far more reductions are needed in the future. In an address to his cabinet and GOP lawmakers, the Governor said: “We’re not going to apologize for this budget, we’re not going to rationalize this budget. We’re going to fight for it and we’re not going to give an inch.”
Despite vigorous attacks from labor unions, Republicans remained united in their opposition to new taxes and spending programs.
All attempts to override Christie’s vetoes failed. In the past, Republicans only had to criticize the budgets submitted by liberal Democrats, but this year they had to sponsor it and line up votes for passage. The conservative lobbying group Americans for Prosperity said the cuts did not go far enough and they targeted deficit hawks such as State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth).
She visited the Governor’s Mansion and was assured Christie was not putting away his budget ax. Beck agreed to co-sponsor the budget and to work for its passage.
Under the old system, a Governor would reward legislators with special favors in the budget if they voted for it. That did not happen this year.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) hoped lawmakers such as Beck would bolt the GOP, and said “I am amazed at Christie’s control over Republicans. They did exactly what they were told. They never acted that way with [former Governor] Christy Todd Whitman, and we use to fight like hell with Corzine.” The difference is that New Jersey is now the nation’s number one high tax state, and it has never had deficits of this magnitude.
Despite repeated attempts, Democrats were unable to force new taxes into the budget, and in early July they finally caved and accepted the Governor’s spending reductions. This happened despite the outrage of public employee unions.
After signing his new budget into law, Christie addressed the legislature:
They said it couldn’t be done, but together, we made the necessary spending cuts. We kept the promise: we balanced the budget without raising taxes. . . Thank you for standing together with me, strong and united, to lead the rebuilding of the state we love. Our state owes all of you a debt of gratitude, and so does a grateful governor. . . The job is not complete. As much as state government spending has grown in past years, local government spending has grown even more. In the past decade, local government spending has grown 69%. And property taxes have grown 70%. We cannot take a vacation when our citizens get no vacation from escalating property taxes
Some of the major events during the past six month include:
- A budget which cuts $4 billion in spending without raising taxes.
- A two percent cap on tax increases will take effect next year.
- Major pension and benefit reform has been enacted.
- Christie has won a 9% spending reduction in the current budget but still has to cope with an estimated $10.5 billion budget gap for next year.
The most exciting confrontation has been Christie’s battle with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). The Governor requested a salary freeze and teachers organized many demonstrations. They spent $6 million on ads attacking Christie.
School budgets are approved on the town and city level, and it is rare for any of them to be defeated. They usually pass with over 90% of the vote. The Governor said any budget which did not contain a salary freeze should be voted down, and 58% of all budgets were then rejected.
Gov. Christie will continue to wage a difficult battle with public employee unions and this will be a hallmark of his administration. The Governor says: “We continue to give public sector workers 4 and 5 percent increases despite the fact there is zero inflation. We’ve continued to say teachers should pay nothing for family health coverage, medical, dental and vision. There’s no one in the world who has this deal, and the property owners are picking up the tab.”
A recent letter to Christie explained the predicament the state faces with labor unions:
As a union member most of my adult life, I have seen us gain more power at the expense of the taxpayer. As a Fire Captain in a department of 70 employees, I make $150,000 and that does not include benefits. With overtime, some firefighters are making over $200,000/year.
The average education of a firefighter is a high school diploma. When I started out, I was told the pay is not great but you will have a job for life. Now you get rich. I can not tell you how many firemen I know that own several homes, big trucks, boats, etc, all on one income. The job is hard and risky, but we make as much as some doctors.
Now the union wants all firefighters across the nation to be unionized, but most of the departments are volunteer. They do a fantastic job but the union wants you to believe the only way you will get great emergency service is if you have highly paid union firefighters. Unions teach employees that they are entitled, and they learn to believe it.