The governor calls state pension obligations ‘the sins of the past’ and says New Jersey can’t afford to keep up with them.
By Matt Skoufalos
Governor Chris Christie addressed his plan for the state budget at the Atlantic Avenue School in Haddon Heights, NJ on Wednesday, tempering tough talk about the underfunded New Jersey pension system with wisecracks about the volume of legislation that makes its way to his desk before the state legislature takes its summer recess.
Making his entrance to the 122nd town hall meeting of his gubernatorial career to Bon Jovi’s “What About Now,” the governor commanded the room, even getting downright folksy at times with the 300 or so attendees from whom he fielded questions for about 45 minutes.
‘It’s become so expensive to live in New Jersey’
“I believe the way to deal with our budget crisis is to reduce spending and reform entitlements,” Christie said, “because it’s become so expensive to live in New Jersey.”
Defending a planned $2.25-billion cut to state pension obligations, with which he plans to plug an imminent budget shortfall, Christie told constituents that the state “cannot afford the promises that have been made” and “cannot tax enough to keep up with payments.”
Even as he decried a state health plan that is “embarrassingly rich,” the governor said the current benefits systems “were not set up to have people living into their eighties and nineties.”
“At what point do you cut off a defined benefit?” he said.
Christie said that his reforms would not affect current pension-holders, except that cost-of-living increases would not take effect until their plans were 70 percent funded. He said that the police and firefighters unions were close to that mark, but that the teachers union is not.
(For more on the pension issue, read this NJ Spotlight story from February 2014. -ed.)
‘There’s no candy to give out’
Christie also promised to veto any legislation that would enact a so-called “millionaire’s tax” on top earners in New Jersey, which is home to the second-highest percentage of millionaires per capita in the country, or raise the corporate tax rate.
Both are part of an alternative Democratic budget proposed by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson/Bergen) and Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees) that would fully fund the pension obligations.
Promising that, whatever his plan for the budget, “everyone will hate it,” the governor warned his supporters: “There’s no candy to give out.
“We have to balance the ledger and deal with discretionary spending,” Christie said.
‘We all pay; everybody pays’
Christie fielded questions on everything from standardized testing in public schools to alimony reform to whether banks do enough to defend their customers from electronic crimes.
Only one man was removed from the meeting for talking out of turn. He was identified by PolitickerNJ as Ricardo Rivera, a healthcare worker who said he’s been waiting a year-and-a-half for New Jersey’s medical marijuana laws to help his daughter, Tatyana, who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy.
“He’s been down the Big Pharma route and hasn’t gotten the results,” said Jim Price of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey after the meeting.
Price was one of a handful of picketers at the event; others included retired teachers Diane Pliner of Voorhees and Carol Wright of Sicklerville, both of which worked in the Evesham Township school district.
“[Christie] talks a good game,” Pliner said. “If he did what he said he does, it would be fine. He said we don’t pay our benefits. That’s not true. We all pay. Everybody pays.”
Local politicians from both major parties tipped their cap to Christie, if for nothing else than hosting 122 town forums in his two terms.
“I give him credit for accessibility,” said Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, Jr., who agreed with the governor that “one of the biggest problems is we’re overtaxed.
“We have some [statewide]budget issues that need to be addressed,” Cappelli said.
Haddon Heights Mayor Ed Forte said that, as “a strong Republican town,” Haddon Heights was glad to welcome the governor for his third or fourth return visit.
Forte said that Haddon Heights, a town that has battled property tax issues, saw the Christie-implemented two-percent budget cap as a “big benefit for us,” and pointed to its push for shared services, such as municipal courts, as alternative budget-conscious efforts.
Forte said that the town’s own pension obligations to its public-sector workers are “stabilized.
“I think things stay stable, and [I’m] glad for it,” he said.