FAIR LAWN – Eight days after he unveiled his $33.8 billion state budget proposal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie defended his plan at the 129th town hall meeting held during his administration, saying other fiscal alternatives are considerably worse.
“The reason I spoke out about one issue is because there really is only one issue that matters,” said Christie before approximately 300 people at the Fair Lawn Community Center on Wednesday. “Between pension payments, health benefit cost increases and debt service, every dollar in revenue that we bring in is going to be eaten up by the sins of the past.”
Christie’s speech, which outlined the budget plans for fiscal year 2016, included plans to further overhaul the state’s pension and benefit system, which has billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities. Using the final findings of a much-anticipated report from the commission Christie convened late last year to study and propose solutions for funding the state’s pension obligations, the governor laid out a plan to put $1.3 billion towards next year’s payment, in part by overhauling the current pension system.
Among the plan’s specifics are to freeze existing pension plans, aligning future public employee retirement benefits with private-sector levels, and transfer the assets, liabilities and risks of the existing pension and new retirement plans to employee entities that wish to assume this obligation.
Christie’s choice of Fair Lawn as a venue for his latest town hall meeting could be viewed as strategic: Fair Lawn is the most-populated municipality in the 38th Legislative District, a swing district located mostly in Bergen, the bellwether county in statewide elections.
Christie took the opportunity in front of a Bergen crowd to take a poke at one possibility suggested as part of the solution to New Jersey’s fiscal morass: the revival of the millionaires tax.
“On its best day, [a millionaires tax] will raise us $500 million. That won’t get us anywhere near the money we need to pay these bills,” Christie said. “Ten thousand millionaires left New Jersey last year. How many more are going to leave if we bump up their taxes some more?”
Shortly thereafter, a man in the crowd exclaimed, “Who cares?”
But the governor pressed on with his point.
“The more [millionaires] who leave makes a disproportionate effect in our revenue,” Christie said. “Without them, these problems will grow even larger.”
Christie has faced criticism from Democrats and labor union leaders following last week’s budget address, especially concerning any pension plan freeze.
He also faced a challenge from Isabel Guide, a senior at Fair Lawn High School.
“Cities and states that have implemented paid sick leave still have good economies. So why are you against a policy that will let a sick mother take care of her child without fear of losing her job?” Guide asked.
“It is extraordinarily expensive to operate in New Jersey already, and I don’t want to make it any more expensive,” Christie replied. “I don’t think that it’s something that we have to have because it will make us less competitive than the rest of the country. If businesses leave the state, [that mother] can be home every day, take care of her child, and not have a job.”
Christie, whose every step is studied on the way down the road to a potential 2016 Republican presidential nomination bid, tread steadily forward despite any critiques on Wednesday, standing by his budget proposal.
“There is no other way to fix this problem. There is no way to tax people out of this problem. Unless you want to go massively laying people off, eliminate all municipal aid, or cut all hospital charity care in the state, there are not any good alternatives left,” Christie said. “If we do what the commission has suggested, New Jersey will be in much better shape. I want to fix it. I don’t want to ignore it or hand it off to my successor. And I’m willing take the political heat to fix it.”