A Democratic state senator says his constituents woke up to automated political phone calls after he complained to Republican Gov. Christie's office about the accuracy of the governor's statistics on a key agenda item.
A spokesman for the New Jersey Republican Committee, which funded the calls, said he would not discuss their timing due to strategic concerns but said several Democratic legislators had been targeted, not just State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen).
Christie has been hammering Sarlo for months as a "liberal" who won't go along with his plan to prohibit retiring employees from cashing out sick time. Ending the practice has become a key part of Christie's efforts to lower property taxes. He has rejected legislative compromises to cap the payouts.
An Inquirer story Wednesday questioned the statistics the governor has used to push his cause - notably the $3.25 billion that he says taxpayers would owe if the Democrats' proposed $7,500 cap on sick time is enacted. In response, Sarlo said he called Christie's spokesman to express outrage.
The following morning, Sarlo says, his constituents began getting robocalls from the Republicans.
"I'm getting under his skin," Sarlo said of Christie. "Unfortunately, they've lost all credibility on the issue."
The Governor's Office said it came up with its $3.25 billion figure by multiplying 433,333 - most of the state's public employees - by the Democratic proposal of $7,500.
In examining Christie's calculation, The Inquirer noted that the sick-leave cash payments are paid only to employees who have reached retirement age, have served up to 30 years, and have stayed healthy enough to avoid taking too many sick days.
In addition, nearly a quarter of towns don't allow the practice, and 28 percent of school districts have caps lower than the $7,500 that Democrats have proposed. Therefore, the $3.25 billion appeared inaccurate.
A spokesman for the governor defended the numbers as a conservative estimate that does not take into account all public employees, who he said number about 535,000, or additional workers who would be hired in the future.
Asked about the article in a radio interview on New Jersey 101.5 FM on Thursday, Christie said: "I don't back off those figures at all. Yeah, they are the worst-case scenario. I want to prepare the public for what will most likely happen if we do nothing."
"I've watched New Jersey from the governor's chair," Christie added, and "assuming the worst-case scenario" is the right thing to do when dealing with taxpayers' money.
Sarlo wants to negotiate with the governor to come up with a cap that still allows bargaining units to negotiate an unused sick-leave benefit at retirement. One Assembly Democrat has proposed a $7,500 cap, with the money going toward retiree health benefit premiums rather than toward cash.
"We will put an end to this, but the governor needs to be rational and do it within the legal confines of collective bargaining," Sarlo said.
He said the payouts that Christie often refers to - $900,000 in unused sick time for four retiring Parsippany police officers, for example - should end immediately.
"But we can't have a rational conversation when he says the entire state of New Jersey has a $3.25 billion obligation when 28 percent of the school districts aren't involved," he said. "It's very hard to negotiate with someone that isn't using factual numbers."
What Sarlo said angers him the most is that in the spring of 2010, Christie proposed an even higher cap: $15,000. Sarlo used the governor's own proposed language in a bill that he sponsored to enact such a cap, and the Legislature passed the bill with support from both parties.
Then, Sarlo said, "I get a phone call that he vetoed it."
In the statement attached to that conditional veto in December 2010, Christie wrote: "Whatever rationale once justified paying public employees cash for unused sick days at retirement, the time has come for the practice to end. Sick days provide time off for employees who are sick, and do not represent an additional form of compensation for employees who are fortunate enough to remain healthy."
The language of that veto was echoed in the phone call that North Jerseyans received this week. A woman's voice said: "Your property tax dollars are being used to pay government employees hundreds of thousands of dollars each if they retire with extra sick days . . . Gov. Christie's 'zero means zero' sick-pay plan is being blocked by our senator, Paul Sarlo, and his Trenton Democrats."
The woman goes on to give Sarlo's office number. The voice mail system at his office was overloaded by Thursday morning.
"This is part of an ongoing effort to let the people of New Jersey know who is standing in the way of just really basic reforms that can save money," said Doug Mayer, a state Republican spokesman.