Gov. Christie is the new gold standard when it comes to upsetting the apple cart in a state capital. And his efforts have me wondering about the possibilities for change in Harrisburg next year.
Here's the situation in the Garden State:
Gone is the woe-is-me approach of Jon S. Corzine. Christie is straight up about the state's taxing and spending problems, assigns bipartisan blame for the eye-popping $11 billion deficit, and pulls no punches about the sacrifices needed.
Within weeks of his inauguration, he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature had taken the first steps on state pension and benefits reform.
He's sticking with his promise not to raise taxes in a state whose traditional first cure for every ill is to hit the taxpayer ATM.
And it turns out he was serious when he said he'd take on special interests and unions.
This last, inadvertently, has brought prayer back into the schools - even if it is just a teachers union official praying for the governor's demise. I know it was just a joke, and, yes, the apology was swift and unequivocal. But Christie is right to call the jest "beyond the pale," and to wonder what the punishment would be for a third-grader who made a similar remark.
He's wrong, though, to seek the firing of the offender, Joe Coppola, head of the Bergen County chapter of the New Jersey Education Association. Let Coppola stay, as a symbol of the cluelessness and lack of accountability of a union that would let school budgets be slashed and employees laid off rather than allow teachers to skip 4 to 5 percent pay hikes for one year and contribute 1.5 percent toward health benefits.
Now, Harrisburg needs no lessons from Trenton when it comes to acting like children. Witness last year's 100-plus days of "No, you pass a budget," "No, you pass one." However, not all squabbling is bad. Fights on principle are legitimate. If the aim is government and spending reform, fire away. But that's not what happened last year.
There were some feints at principle - no new taxes vs. no service cuts - but it boiled down to fighting over the crumbs in tough economic times. There was no push to change the way Harrisburg does business. So when lawmakers crawled across the finish line, dragging a budget behind them, there were no cheers from taxpayers because it was already time to stand up and start fighting over the next year's crumbs.
Pennsylvania's fiscal shape isn't as bad as New Jersey's, but even a manageable half-billion-dollar problem has tripled, in part because lawmakers gambled on an I-80 tolling scheme that the feds have now rejected three times. It's as though you took a second mortgage for your home and promised to repay based on charging a toll on anyone who drove down your street for the next 30 years. Oh yeah, Mr. Banker, I'm sure the township will OK this. Really.
Even if Harrisburg manages to stagger across the finish line this year with a balanced budget, awaiting the next governor, among other things, will be the looming state-employee pension crisis, which could set the commonwealth back $2 billion to $4 billion.
So is there a Chris Christie in Pennsylvania's future, a governor who won't whine about how hard his job is, who will pass pension reform, who will refrain from hitting the taxpayer ATM, and who will fight special interests?
Though there is plenty of talk of reform among the six major candidates - four Democrats and two Republicans - it's hard to imagine any one of them charging into the state Capitol and really shaking things up. Insiders would find it especially hard to ask former legislative colleagues to reform themselves. So I don't see a Christie in Republican State Rep. Sam Rohrer, or two Democrats, State Sen. Anthony Williams and Auditor General Jack Wagner, a former senator.
As for Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, every time he calls himself progressive I see billions more flowing from the taxpayer ATM - a most un-Christie image.
The two potential reformers are Democrat Dan Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, and Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett.
Onorato might sound too much like Gov. Rendell for some people's tastes, but he deserves credit for cutting county government, bucking his party in the process, and holding the line on taxes. That's no guarantee of success on a statewide stage, but at least he has the credentials.
Corbett should be the undisputed reform champ, after indicting lawmakers and staff from both sides of the aisle, and convicting some. He's taken the no-new-tax pledge, but is less clear on too many issues. Some of his ideas - no "walking around money," cut the state fleet of vehicles - seem like so much light dusting when what Harrisburg needs is a good scouring.
Fortunately, it's still early in the election process. There's still time for Pennsylvania's Christie to emerge.