Listening to Gov. Christie’s budget address Tuesday, you might think he was throwing his hat in the ring to become governor of the United States.
From coast to coast, governors are following New Jersey’s lead, Christie argued. In California, New York, Wisconsin, and Ohio, they’re cutting wages and benefits for public employees and health care for the poor.
Forget all that talk about Christie running for president. To hear him tell it, he’s leading the country from his desk in Trenton. He even threw in a complaint about “Obamacare.”
“Some thought the change might come from the federal government, but that hasn't been the case,” Christie said. “The change is coming from the states, and the charge is being led by New Jersey.”
That alone won’t console New Jersey residents, who haven’t felt real improvement from Christie’s budget cuts. Jobs are still hard to find, and property taxes are higher than ever.
Thousands of teachers have been laid off, putting pressure on districts to increase class sizes. In Camden, about 40 percent of the police and firefighters are gone due in part to the loss of state aid. In some cases, emergency response times are up.
This, too, is part of what Christie calls “the New Normal.”
It’s true Christie was dealt a horrible budget hand, and he was elected in 2009 to fix the state’s broken finances. The budget he proposed for fiscal 2012 is $29.4 billion, which his office says is 2.6 percent less than current spending levels. (That’s mostly right: Christie proposed a budget of $28.3 billion in March 2010, but actual appropriations rose to $30.2 billion after the fiscal 2011 budget was enacted).
If there is a glimmer of good news in this budget, it is Christie’s proposal to increase total aid to school districts by $250 million. It would restore a fraction of the aid he cut last year.
To cover a new budget shortfall of $10.4 billion (about the same as last year), Christie still offers a few of the onetime gimmicks that he decries. He would contribute $506 million to the state employees’ pension fund, the minimum allowed by law — and one-seventh of what the state actually owes.
Christie is correct that pension reform is needed, and state taxpayers can’t afford the promises Trenton has made. The retirement system for state workers is $54 billion short of its liabilities; the health-care system is underfunded by $67 billion.
Reform is needed. But as noted by Assembly Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald (D., Camden), the governor is trying unnecessarily to pit neighbor against neighbor in his budget. Christie wants to cut the benefits for police and teachers, and in return double the property-tax credits for seniors. He could just as easily contrive a trade-off by eliminating $200 million in proposed tax breaks for businesses and giving the money instead to seniors.
New Jersey residents by now understand Christie’s version of sacrifice. But they’re still waiting for the results.
Don’t dwell on rising property taxes or program cuts, Christie said, in effect. New Jerseyans, be proud instead that your governor is leading a nationwide austerity revolution.