You’ve got to hand it to Christie; he calls it as he sees it. I don’t mean the newly crowned Governor, Chris Christie, but his nine-year-old son, Patrick.
In his first budget speech to the Legislature last week, Governor Christie invoked his young son’s frequent use of the word “unfair” as a snide and belittling criticism of public employees. To hear Governor Christie tell it, working families are just babyish bellyachers if they point out the injustice of making middle class budget and service cuts which pass the buck to local government, raise property taxes, increase transit fares and cut health care and retirement benefits while simultaneously giving tax breaks to the wealthiest New Jerseyans who can actually afford to share the sacrifice.
Yes, Patrick is right. That is unfair.
Since his first day on the job and his first Executive Order, Governor Christie has made it clear that he intends to pick a fight with public employees and their unions. Last week’s budget speech rhetoric–with its not-to-subtle attack on teachers and other public employees–was crafted to divide New Jerseyans rather than to unite us. It is easier to play the blame game, pitting worker against worker and middle class families against each other, than it is to find real and lasting solutions to the budget crisis.
Who knew that behind the benevolent faces of your child’s second-grade teacher and the courageous firefighter who risks his life pulling your mother from her burning home, lurks a money-grubbing fat cat responsible for all that is wrong with New Jersey’s economy?
During last week’s speech, the Governor gave unnamed examples of extreme pension payouts meant to inspire the public to grab their pitchforks and head for the union halls. In fact, the average public employee pension payout statewide is about $23,000 a year after 25 years of service. Public employees at every level of government have recognized fiscal realities and agreed time and again at the bargaining table during the past two decades to a wide array of pension and health benefit concessions and reforms. Importantly, public worker unions have actively worked hard to rid the pension system of abuses of the politically connected such as pension tacking and padding by multiple jobholders.
By ignoring that history and simply demonizing public employees, however, politicians have found a convenient way to blind the rest of the public to the reality that they are being gamed.
Income inequality between most Americans and the top 10% of Americans is greater than ever, and while New Jersey is the second most affluent state in the country, we have one of the worst divides between the rich and everyone else. The richest 20% of New Jerseyans have been getting richer over the past three decades and now account for 53% of the state’s total income. That means the great majority of the state’s people, 80% of New Jerseyans, account for a mere 47% of the state income.
This kind of income inequality provokes the envy and antagonism felt across our country. That divide has inflamed tensions and underlies the bitterness on conservative talk radio, increasingly partisan fights at both national and state levels, outbursts at tea parties and during Presidential speeches, an widely used “us-versus-them” rhetoric, and surprising swings in election outcomes. New Jersey has felt those tensions keenly.
For Governor Christie to take advantage of the bully pulpit to play into that emotional divide by turning hard-working New Jerseyans into “the enemy” is wrong—dare I say unfair–on so many levels. Sadly, it now seems to be a bipartisan game. The new leadership of the Democrat-controlled legislature, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, were all too eager to present the new Governor with a ready made attack plan on the agreed upon bogeyman—public employees–under the guise of pension reform.
In fact, the four-bill pension “reform” package is not real reform. It doesn’t save any money in the budget this year or next and it does not solve the looming pension problem. Public employees’ secure retirement depends on the funds being solvent. They, and the unions which represent them, have bargained an endless array of concessionary reforms in the past two decades to help insure that.
It has been said many times before but bears repeating that public employees have faithfully paid every penny of their share of the pension contributions while the state and local governments have skipped most of their share for more than twenty years. Governor Christie talks about “reform” but like his predecessors, shorts the underfunded pension once again by proposing to skip $100 million owed this fiscal year and planning to forego the $2 billion owed for next year.
Pinning blame on public workers is not only wrong it’s lazy. Why eliminate patronage and cronyism by axing political appointees or slashing subcontracted state work at sky-high prices and other real waste when you can cut health care benefits to the folks who deliver meaningful services to the public? Why keep an existing tax on the wealthiest citizens, which raises $1 billion in state revenue, when you can cut school funding, hospital and transit aid instead and pass the buck down the line to the middle class? Why pay what the state owes the pension fund when you can subvert collective bargaining and cut workers’ benefits once again instead? Why use the state’s $500 million dollar surplus when you can force local governments and school districts to use theirs?
The electorate may be temporarily behind the Governor now as he proclaims cut, cut, cut. Cutting state spending sounds good since we like to believe it will trickle down to the average taxpayer and give everyone some much needed economic relief. But that won’t happen with this Governor’s proposals because they actually target the average taxpayer. When middle and working class New Jerseyans feel the real impact of these particular proposed cuts—whether it is from increased train and bus fares, higher property taxes and fewer school programs due to cuts to their school district, loss of a neighborhood hospital, less firefighter and police protection, inadequate snow removal on their streets—their anger and their pitchforks will rightly be pointed towards the State House.
Fueling jealousy and resentment among the citizenry is dangerous and no way for a Governor to lead. Those that provide public service should be respected not vilified by the state’s top leaders. And, since Christie brought his kid into it, I will quote my own testosterone-fueled fifteen-year-old son Cooper, who is all attitude and worldly disdain these days. His favorite phrase is, “That is just so wrong.”