TRENTON - Gov. Christie assumed the role of referee Thursday, calling for an end to partisan squabbling that erupted after a GOP leader belittled New Jersey's unemployed as content to collect jobless benefits rather than look for work.
Christie said Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce's comments were "ill-advised" and "wrong," but said the Morris County politician had apologized. Christie then called on leaders of both parties to end the skirmish.
"Can we please stop the food fight already?" Christie asked during a Statehouse news conference Thursday.
"This is really kind of beneath the offices that everybody holds, to have this name-calling and bickering back and forth between the Senate president and speaker and the minority leader of the Assembly," the governor said.
"Can maybe they be invaded with the spirit of Christmas and be nice to each other?"
DeCroce was addressing a New Jersey Business and Industry Association forum Tuesday when, during a question on the state's indebted unemployment fund, he said the state's jobless benefits were too rich and encourage the unemployed not to seek work.
"I'm one of the few people here . . . who feel that benefits are too good for these people," DeCroce told the business leaders.
"Why go to work?" he said. "If you can go for 26 weeks collecting $550 a week, and you get an extension for another 26, that's close to $27,000 a year or $30,000 a year, and a lot of people figure, 'Why go to work?' "
Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver were incensed.
People in the construction trades, where unemployment is around 50 percent, would "go to work tomorrow," Sweeney said. Oliver said no one surviving on $27,000 a year in unemployment benefits was living the high life.
A nasty back-and-forth ensued.
DeCroce said Wednesday that his comments were directed at people who are gaming the system, not those who have been hit hard by the recession and are looking for work. He called out the Democratic leaders for working public jobs besides being part-time legislators. Sweeney works part-time as a Gloucester County freeholder; Oliver is employed full-time by Essex County.
That was after Sweeney asked how DeCroce would know what it was like to be unemployed when his wife makes $120,000 a year working for the governor. Betty Lou DeCroce, the longtime Roxbury clerk, was hired in April as a deputy commissioner at the Department of Community Affairs. The couple make more than $170,000 on the state payroll.
New Jersey AFL-CIO leader Charles Wowkanech also weighed in Thursday, calling DeCroce's comments "an unprovoked insult to people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own."
While Christie called for an end to the bickering, he declined to address the thornier issue of how to fix the state's unemployment fund, which is $1.7 billion in the red to the federal government.
The governor proposed trimming benefits to the jobless this year to blunt a steep unemployment tax increase on business owners. The tax is triggered automatically based on the amount of money in the fund.
Christie's proposal, which went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, would have reduced unemployment benefits to $550 a week, from $600, and would have required a one-week wait before benefits kicked in for the newly unemployed.
A tax increase of about $400 an employee was reduced to about $130 per worker because of changes in unemployment rules to make it harder for people who quit or are fired for misconduct to get benefits. The changes will save the state about $150 million a year.
Businesses face a similar tax increase of up to $400 per employee in July. The governor created a task force to seek ways to return the fund to solvency, and its report is due soon.