Back home, Christie spars on pension funding

jtown17z-a
Gov. Chris Christie listens to a question during a town hall meeting Thursday, April 16, 2015, in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

HASBROUCK HEIGHTS, N.J. - After spending two days telling New Hampshire voters about a need to reform federal entitlement programs and bashing President Obama's foreign policy, Gov. Christie resumed the town-hall circuit at home Thursday by returning to his bread-and-butter state issues: public worker benefits and education.

The governor, a prospective candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, wants public workers to contribute more toward their health benefits to align New Jersey's plans with those in the private sector. He'd use the resulting savings to pay down the state pension system's $83 billion unfunded liability.

The governor returns to New Hampshire on Friday for another town-hall meeting and other events.

Christie's staff decorated the VFW hall in this Bergen County community with familiar charts from past meetings showing the rising costs of retiree benefits.

Not everyone is sold on his plan. In the day's longest exchange, Christie engaged in a cordial argument with Steve Panagiotou, a 47-year-old manager of a trucking company whose wife has taught in New Jersey public schools for 24 years.

"There is money in pension," Panagiotou told Christie as his wife protested outside, urging the governor to fully fund the pension system. "You wrote the law in 2011. You bragged about the law. How's it unconstitutional?"

Christie responded that the state did not have the money to fully fund the pension system.

His proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes a $1.3 billion payment for the pension system, about $1.8 billion short of what is specified by a law he signed in 2011 that requires both public workers and the state to contribute more.

In response to a lawsuit, his administration is arguing in court that the law was unconstitutional.

The state hasn't collected as much revenue as it expected when he signed the law, Christie said. "You cannot pay what you do not have."

He added that he has paid more money into the pension system than any other governor. "What makes me mad about this, quite frankly: You have people out there yelling and screaming," Christie said. "Where were they when Jim Florio wasn't paying into the pension?"

Christie continued, to applause, "Where were they when Christie Whitman was not paying into the pension?"

Panagiotou suggested that Christie could fund the pension system by using money earmarked for corporate incentives, such as the $82 million offered to the 76ers to move their practice facility to Camden.

Christie said the tax breaks had helped create jobs and added that the money dedicated to incentives wouldn't make up the pension deficit.

Lastly, Panagiotou wanted to know, would his wife's pension still be there after he dies?

"If we follow the plan you're suggesting, she won't," he said. "If you follow the plan I'm suggesting, she will. That's the answer."

There was no "sit down and shut up" moment; the men shook hands after the lengthy exchange.

Later, Marlene Burton, 77, of Ridgewood, called the Common Core educational standards "shoddy" and the new standardized tests known as PARCC "a waste of time." What, she asked, was Christie going to do about that?

Christie, who once declared that he and other governors were "leading the way" on Common Core, said he had "concerns" about how the standards had been implemented and was awaiting a report he commissioned to study them.

The report, he suggested, would provide guidance as to how to "amend or abandon" Common Core, Christie said.

Conservatives have denounced the standards as federal encroachment on the classroom, though they were developed by the National Governors Association and education experts.

Christie said he wasn't wedded to the PARCC exam specifically but was committed to testing, saying, "Every taxpayer has the right to know: Are those children getting what they're paying for?"

Burton, who said she has three grandchildren, countered that the test was taking away from instruction time. Christie noted that he had proposed extending the school year but had not won support from parents and teachers on that front.

"We're still on the agrarian calendar for school," Christie said. To laughs, he added, "Seriously, are the kids in Ridgewood leaving school in June and going out to till the fields?"

The town hall's final question belonged to a Boy Scout named Charlie. "How many bodyguards do you have?" he asked the governor.

Six were with him Thursday, Christie said, and a total of 30 protect him and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Charlie said he wanted to be a bodyguard when he was growing up.


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman