Chris Christie's Budget Bruiser

Governor Chris Christie addresses the media on April 21 after voters in New Jersey heeded his call to reject most local school budgets.
Photo by Tim Larsen, New Jersey governor's office
Governor Chris Christie addresses the media on April 21 after voters in New Jersey heeded his call to reject most local school budgets.

TRENTON, N.J. — At a press conference in his Capitol office here last week, Governor Chris Christie was asked for his reaction to comments made by one of New Jersey's local school superintendents. "Chris Christie is determined to run New Jersey like an episode of The Sopranos," the superintendent had told local media. "A foreign terrorist could not do as much damage to public education as Chris Christie has in the past three months."

The room fell silent, but Christie seemed amused. "I assume I'm not getting his vote in three years," he said with a shrug. Christie had called the press conference to boast about the results of school elections held around the state the previous day — local elections on which the governor had staked an unusual amount of his own credibility. Christie had urged voters to reject any school budget that did not include a pay freeze for teachers; a record 58 percent of the school budgets were voted down.

"That stuff rolls off my back," Christie said of the superintendent's remarks. "I was sent here to do a job, and I'm going to do that job. And candidly, it sounds to me like he's on the wrong side of history."

Only three months into his term, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has grown accustomed to deflecting verbal attacks like this. Just two weeks before, Christie extracted an apology from the head of the state teachers' union for a memo that a local chapter had circulated, jokingly wishing for the governor's death. But the 47-year-old Republican throws his share of rhetorical punches, too — especially when discussing his plans to fix a $10.7 billion budget deficit exclusively with cuts.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Christie accused union leaders of intimidating previous governors to get their way on salaries and pensions. He also called New Jersey "the best example of a failed experiment in America on taxes and bigger government."

But there's another line Christie likes to use to describe the fiscal situation he inherited: "The day of reckoning is here." It's difficult to argue his point. While nearly all states are in deep fiscal trouble, New Jersey is in deeper than most. Its deficit amounts to 37 percent of the entire state budget. Christie has responded by proposing to slash billions of dollars in state spending on everything from aid to municipalities to the normally sacrosanct K-12 education system. More than 1,300 state government positions would be eliminated.

The governor's proposal — and his unapologetic defense of it — have made him a villain to mayors, teachers, superintendents and other public employees. But Christie, perhaps more than any other governor these days, has captured the imagination of conservatives who admire his eagerness to take on powerful public employee unions. Many Republicans believe that Christie's tough stance on spending is hitting exactly the right political note in a major election year marked by anti-government anger and Tea Party activism.

Indeed, with the governorships of 37 states up for grabs in November — and state finances not expected to improve much anytime soon — Christie's budget-cutting quest and all the hot rhetoric both for and against it may amount to much more than political theater. It may be a preview of how some new Republican governors will lead in states they win this year. In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Tom Corbett, the front-runner to become the GOP's candidate for governor, says he's been paying close attention to what's going on in the state next door. Chris Christie, he told Stateline in an interview , "has made a very good example."

'Spending is out of control'

While not everyone likes Christie's blunt-talking style, many people in New Jersey have come to see a governor as aggressive as he is about cutting spending as overdue.

The state's taxes are among the nation's highest. And despite hikes in the sales and personal income taxes in recent years, revenue has fallen far out of sync with spending. Meanwhile, an enormous debt burden requires the state to make huge interest payments each year. A recent report by the nonpartisan legislative research office predicted that New Jersey is unlikely to return to its 2008 revenue levels until 2014.

For the most part, other states have been dealing with their own budget crises with a mix of budget cuts and tax hikes. If there is one governor who has recently tried something like the Christie approach, it's Nevada's Jim Gibbons. Like Christie, Gibbons is a Republican. And like Christie, Gibbons has to contend with a legislature controlled by Democrats. Last year, Gibbons set out to close a huge budget gap using cuts alone — including a 36-percent cut for higher education — but ultimately ran into opposition. Democratic lawmakers raised taxes by about $800 million by overriding his vetoes with the help of some legislators from across the aisle.

That seems less likely in New Jersey. Democrats in the legislature seem mindful of the political capital Christie accrued by defeating Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine last year. Their criticisms of the new governor have been relatively muted, given his brash talk.

"Spending is out of control," says Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono. "I agree with the governor." Buono is quick to point out, however, that she has plenty of differences with Christie's specific proposals, including his planned cuts in aid for senior citizens and college students. She also opposes Christie's plan to do away with a tax hike approved last year on residents who earn more than $400,000 a year.

But Christie enjoys more executive power than Gibbons does in Nevada. He can line-item veto any items in the budget Democrats present him. And Democrats in the Legislature don't have enough votes to override him.

Other factors are at play, as well. For all of Christie's anti-tax talk, one could argue that parts of his budget plan effectively would raise taxes. For example, Christie proposes to reduce New Jersey's earned income tax credit, a move that would increase the amount of taxes paid by the working poor.

Then there's the schools plan that has been causing so much controversy. Christie proposed slashing $820 million in state aid to local schools — an amount he says is equal to what teachers across the state would give up if they agreed to take a one-year pay freeze and make new contributions to their own health benefits. Many school districts are planning on responding to the cuts by raising property taxes.

Nothing has more encapsulated Christie's approach than the school-aid issue. In New Jersey, local school district budgets are put directly to the voters each spring. Christie took the unusual step of issuing a public call for voters to reject budgets in districts where teachers refused to make the concessions he called for. The high-profile ultimatum ramped up pressure on teachers and drove up voter turnout. In districts where teachers agreed to the concessions, 79 percent of school budgets passed; in districts where they did not, only 41 percent passed. Christie hailed the outcome of the elections as a loud-and-clear signal that voters "want fundamental reform."

The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, counters that Christie is a bully who is distorting the facts when it comes to his K-12 budget. The union notes, for instance, that legislative researchers found that even if all the state's teachers agree to the concessions Christie is seeking, K-12 education still would face a huge shortfall.

The dispute between the union and Christie got so tense in the run-up to the school-budget elections that The Trenton Times, this city's daily newspaper, couldn't resist poking fun at it in an editorial cartoon. It showed two Iraqis watching TV coverage of the school elections from a café in Baghdad. One says to the other, "You've gotta admire New Jersey holding an election in the midst of war."


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