MOORESTOWN — A day after unveiling his latest budget in Trenton to a lukewarm reception, Gov. Chris Christie returned to his town hall circuit to tout it out in front of residents.
“We have done what we said we’re going to do — make government smaller in every way possible,” Christie told an auditorium full of attendees at the Moorestown Recreation Center during his 128th town hall.
Christie lauded his $33.8 billion budget, proposed during his annual address on the Assembly floor yesterday, as his most fiscally responsible yet. It includes no tax increases and flat spending for key items such as aid to schools, and a $1.3 pension payment into an seriously underfunded system that lawmakers have struggled in recent years to keep under control.
That’s short a couple billion dollars the state owes under its public workers, but it’s nearly double what it was last year, as Christie noted again today.
“It’s an enormous step forward for the state,” Christie said. “All kinds of things you do just to plug a hole — we’re not doing that anymore.”
The budget, and much of Christie address yesterday, also centers on a plan to get the state’s obligations to that system back under control — partly by freezing existing pension plans and transferring the assets, liabilities and risks of the existing pension and new retirement plans to employee entities willing and able to assume the obligation. Calling it a “Roadmap for Reform”, Christie brandished the support from the New Jersey Education Association during his address, saying the union was in “unprecedented accord” on the issue.
The characterization was quickly met with criticism from that union and others, however. The NJEA issued a statement just hours after the address arguing Christie had overstated their support, and organizations like the State Policeman’s Benevolent Association expressed concern over Christie’s desire to lump largely solvent pensions like their’s into largely insolvent ones, like the NJEA’s.
The criticism puts Christie in a particularly vulnerable position as he continues to mull a 2016 primary bid for the Republican presidential nomination. It also comes less than a day after a Superior Court judge sided with a handful of public sector unions in requiring the state to meet the its pension obligation with a nearly $1.6 billion contribution this year and similar contributions in years ahead.
Christie sought to defend himself against those complaints today, countering that the conflict was “reported carelessly” and maintaining he never said the union was fully on board.
“I didn’t not announce yesterday that w’eve agreed to every element of the problem. I said we’ve agreed to a roadmap,” he said.
“You want to get someone done, you have to willing to reach your hand out and compromise,” he added. “We’re not going to solve this problem by yelling at each other.”
Echoing his comments from yesterday, Christie argued that his administration has contributed more toward the pension system, suffering from billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities, than any other administration. He said former governor put a total of $3.4 billion toward the system in 15 years — he’s put in $4.2 billion in five.
“Together with the reforms that we passed,” Christie said. “The pension fund is significantly sounder than it is today that it was when I became governor.”
He did stress that the state’s pension system — which he said will eat up a billion dollars in revenue next year — is a top priority for his administration going into 2016.
“It bankrupt Detroit, it bankrupt general motors, and it will bankrupt us if we continue to do this,” Christie said.
A prospective presidential nominee for the Republican nomination in 2016, Christie continued to bolster his conservative bona fides here, vowing to reject any proposals in Trenton to raise taxes on New Jersey residents — proposals he said Democrats are sure to offer.
“You’re going to start to hear the drum beat again,” Christie said, adding later: “We’re simply not going to do it.”
He said he would continue make state government “smaller while keeping it both efficient and effective.”