Gov. Christopher Christie’s arrival in Hudson County on March 17 was heavily laden with film and musical metaphors – with allusions to scenes in films like “Casablanca” and to the Kenny Rodgers tune “The Gambler” – but his message was clear: he had to cut the state budget, and he was perfectly willing to take on the unions to do it.
He appeared on Wednesday before a small gathering at the Avenue C firehouse in Bayonne, where business people, union representatives, and others asked about the impact of his proposed cuts to the state budget.
While they presented him with concerns over the environment, state regulations, and taxation, Christie made his case for his cuts.
“There are 2,112 line items in this year’s budget. We have reviewed every one of them.” – Gov. Christopher Christie
Accompanied by Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, Christie began the arduous task of selling to the state legislature a series of proposals that will slash state and local spending in an effort to turn around a disastrous economy.
‘There is going to be pain’ Although many of the proposals outlined in a speech the day before his coming to Bayonne challenge many of the sacred cows of Democratic Party, Christie said his cuts will also affect communities Democratic and Republican throughout the state, and will make him few friends, even among Republicans.
Jose Arango, chairman for the Republican Party in Hudson County, said Christie’s proposals were simply common sense, and while there may be disagreement on some of the details, everyone needs to get behind the move to curb the state’s spending.
“This is not an easy job, but it is a job I asked for, so you won’t hear me moaning about it,” Christie said. “In the short term, there is going to be pain. There is no other way to fix it, no magic wand we can wave. For 20 years, both parties have avoided this, telling people want they wanted to hear.”
Christie said he had hoped to have other people on board before he “jumped off the cliff” by announcing his budget cutting proposals. “But we jumped first.”
The proposals for the state’s 2011 budget will attempt to avoid what is projected as a $10.9 billion shortfall in a $29 billion budget.
“There are 2,112 line items in this year’s budget,” he said. “We have reviewed every one of them.”
Early in the process, he said, he felt confident when he managed to cut items that did not cause significant pain. But when the cuts were tallied, the figure came up far short of the needed cuts, and at this point, he realized he would have to cut deeper and more painfully if the state was to make up for the shortfalls.
While he said he cut every state department, he left untouched some items that affected the most vulnerable people in the state, such as aid to hospitals, enrollment of children in Medicaid and New Jersey Family Care, and prescription drug programs for senior citizens. State parks – which provide recreation for the state’s least wealthy – and food banks also retained state support.
But Christie refused to shy away from some of his more controversial proposals, even when facing an audience that included members of the trade unions and public employee unions.
Straight talk to unions
While he agreed that unions should not strike and may need to have binding arbitration, he said the process needs to be reformed in order to allow arbitrators to consider budget limitations. He also said civil service protections need to be reformed in order to allow governments to better manage their labor.
At the same time, he said he was willing to sit down with union officials and let them make their case.
“I may not be the smartest man in a room or know the most, but I know how to listen, how to learn and how to lead,” he said.
Christie, however, refused to back down from his criticism of the New Jersey teachers’ unions, which he called “the 800 pound gorilla” that contributed heavily to the massive cost of operating the schools.
Christie’s cuts include $820 million in school aid and $445 million to municipalities. The latter includes $5.7 million reduction of aid to Bayonne schools and a proposed suspension of Urban Enterprise Zone program funds to the city.
“This is not something I want to do,” he said. “But it has to be done.”
He said government officials on every level need to learn to “live within their means” and while in the short term the cuts will hurt, in the long term, the state and municipalities will be stronger.
He said he refused to play politics with homeowner rebate checks by borrowing money to pay for checks that would be delivered to people’s homes just prior to an election. Instead, rebates when issued will be credited to people’s tax statements.
Perhaps the vaguest part of Christie’s presentation was how he expected to replace jobs lost in the state. But Christie said he has personally called the chief operating officers of corporations in and out of the state in a drive to bring jobs here, and that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno would be focusing her efforts on job creation.
Bayonne priorities addressed
Mayor Mark Smith said he had visited the governor last week at the governor’s mansion to discuss some concerns of his own, especially over continued support for the development of the former Military Ocean Terminal and the fate of the Bayonne Bridge.
Both during that prior meeting and the visit to Bayonne, Christie said the fate of the Bayonne Bridge was high on his agenda, saying that the ports along Newark Bay were too valuable an economic engine for Northern New Jersey to allow shipping to go elsewhere along the East Coast.
With a new fleet on container ships about to arrive, Bayonne Bridge poses an obstacle and will either have to be replaced or raised.
Christie promised that he would listen to the concerns of Bayonne over the impact.
Most of his talk, however, expanded on a 10-page March 16 speech in which he outlined proposals that included a strict 2.5 percent spending cap for municipalities, cuts in aid, and proposed reshaping of many functions of state and local government, including possible changes to civil service and binding operations.
Christie said he had come to Bayonne because some of the changes Mayor Smith had made over the last 16 months were in line with some of the changes he had for the state.
“I will be going to other model communities,” he said.
Christie sang the praises of Democratic State Senator Sandra Cunningham, who he said was a forceful voice for her community.
“There is a reason I selected her for my transition team – one of ten people,” he said. “While I may disagree with her on some issues, she has made her case.”