Christie digs in against the backlash; challenges Dem legislature to do better

WARREN – Gov. Chris Christie stood firm today in the face of blowback from the teachers’ union, fretful parents, picketing

WARREN – Gov. Chris Christie stood firm today in the face of blowback from the teachers’ union, fretful parents, picketing students worried about budget cuts, firefighters, and the mayor of the state’s capital city as he answered reporters’ questions at an autism education center.

“I have to make choices – difficult choices – and now it’s the legislature’s turn to see if they want to do something different,” said Christie, standing beside Health Commissioner Poonam Alaigh. 

“If they do, send it back to me and I’ll consider it. If I agree with it I’ll sign it. If I don’t, I’ll veto it.” 

Confronted with Christie’s challenge to the Majority Democrat legislature to find better solutions than the cuts he proposed, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) said no problem. 

“The Assembly is ready to hold 24 budget hearings through May 19, and – along with the Senate – will do its constitutional duty to review this budget line-by-line and take a close look at every one of Gov. Christie’s tax increases that hit working class New Jerseyans hard as the rich get richer. One thing is for sure – we will do something different and by definition it will be better than what Gov. Christie has proposed.”

But the more fitful encounter for the governor in school budget season bore the immediate battle trappings of the teachers’ union – however camoflaged.

The venue in leafy Somerset County, packed with kids, had a kinder, gentler texure than the jagged edges of Christie’s statewide brawl with the teachers – until one realized that part of the governor’s purpose here was to drive a private sector message, which simultaneosuly drove the knife to the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), even as Christie posed with afflicted children.

With 19 days to go until school board elections in which voters will assess the local level impact of Christie’s proposed cuts in school aid, the governor said he has no objections to the criticisms, which people have taken to the streets in some instances.

“People are expressing their point of view, it’s a free country,” said the governor. “You can guarantee it doesn’t affect me.”

Trying to close a nearly $11 billion state budget gap, the governor’s five-percent across-the-board cuts to school districts for FY 2011 total about $800 million, an amount clobbering local school boards already entangled in this fiscal year’s $475 million cuts that Christie dealt to schools.

Christie said what does irk him is union organizing in a chemistry class in Bridgewater-Raritan. “I don’t like teachers politicking in the classroom,” the governor said.

He continued to plug a state aid proposal that Commissioner of Education Bret Schundler pitched to him and which Christie in turn took public. Designed as an alternative to layoffs, school districts in which teachers agree to one-year wage freezes would receive state aid equal to the amount of social security and Medicare payroll deductions that would accompany salary increases.

Bridgewater School Board President Jeffrey Brookner yesterday told that the state aid giveback probably wouldn’t impact a deep cuts scenario prompting Bridgewater to layoff 55 teachers – in addition to 13 the school district planned to let go prior to learning of the state aid cuts.

Teachers at the sprawling suburban Central Jersey town have agreed to givebacks totaling $1.4 million, but not total freezes. 

“If the proposal requires a total freeze of teacher salaries, we would not be eligible unless the union were to make significant additional concessions,” Brookner said. “If lesser concessions suffice to trigger the proposal, then we may be entitled to a restoration of some aid cuts.”

Christie doesn’t yet know how he will vote on the school budget in his own town of Mendham. 

“I don’t know what the budget is,” he said. “I don’t know what the effect on property taxes is going to be and how they’re reacting to all of this. When I get all of the information, like I always do, then I’ll decide how I’m going to vote.”

The Observer-Tribune reports that a $1 million shortfall in Mendham caused by a combination of state aid loss and rising insurance costs forced the School Board to propose raising taxes slightly, eliminating some jobs and scaling down or cutting programs.

In response to a reporter’s question about whether he’s hearing any positive feedback from teachers regarding the wage freeze proposal, the governor said,  “Yes, but I wouldn’t attribute it to them. I think people are hearing from their constituencies, and what the people of New Jersey are saying is that it’s reasonable to ask teachers to take a one-year pay freeze.” 

“These are early skirmishes in what will be a longer war,” Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said of the Christie-NJEA knock-around. 

“The NJEA is not going away. While it would seem the governor has been fierce in his attacks against the union leadership, those attacks will help him most in getting this budget passed but the NJEA will still be around to play a role in municipal and legislative elections in the future.”

School budget season has teachers in the fire zone, but they’re not the only quaking public sector stronghold.

Insensed by what they said was Christie’s campaign promise last year to leave their healthcare benefits alone, the Firefighters Mutual Benevolence Asscoiation (FMBA) of New Jersey has now turned the firehoses on the governor.

(Christie) “sent emails to our members,” FMBA Prez Bill Lavin told a State Government Committee last month. “We were reassured that our health benefits were a sacred trust, and any exception to that would be a 100% lie.”

Christie today said his promise in a letter concerned current FMBA members.

“After Mr. Lavin’s performance in front of the legislature, I don’t really care what he has to say,” the governor said. “I don’t take what he has to say seriously.”

Prodded on Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer’s challenge earlier this week that the governor reconsider devastating cuts to Trenton totaling $43 million, Christie bucked up Newark Mayor – and potential 2013 gubernatorial challenger – Cory Booker, who faces re-election on May 11th.

“You know, Newark just had a murder-free March,” the governor told reporters. “Newark is finding a way to manage. Maybe Mayor Palmer isn’t.”

He softened that a second later – then a second after that, lowered the hammer.

“Everyone has to feel the pain of these budget cuts,” Christie said. “I understand the mayor is upset – and he likes to use inflammatory language.”

Regarding the alleged gang rape of a seven-year old girl in Trenton yesterday, the governor added, “What happened with that young girl is deplorable, and for a parent, it’s nightmare-inducing. All cities are facing difficulties.

“All suburbs are facing difficulties.” 

Palmer returned fire in a telephone interview.

“I don’t care whether you’re Cory Booker, Fiorello LaGuardia or Harry Houdini, when you lose 20% of the money for your budget, you can’t function,” said the mayor. “The governor doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to Trenton. One crime is too many, but we have had two murders in ten months, and we didn’t have the infusion of an extra $22 million that Cory had this year.”

Notwithstanding the more dramatic emanations, Christie’s presser here today at the Child’s Play Center in winding road Warren provided him with a family backdrop to gently drum the private sector model as a combat tool against the disease of autism.

“Commisioner Schundler wants to help teach the state about how important it is that the public and private sector work together,” said the governor. “A lot of people are looking for the light (regarding answers about the disease), and you’re going to help us.”

After meeting privately at the center with the parents of autistic children, Christie mingled in a room of parents and children. 

One child next to the governor gripped a 101.5 microphone, and Christie, referring affectionately to the boy as “governor,” said, “It seems fun in the beginning, but you’re going to get a whole lot of questions you’re not going to like.”

  Christie digs in against the backlash; challenges Dem legislature to do better