By John Celock
KENILWORTH, N.J. – Showing his trademark bluntness, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) told a teacher at a town hall here that her union lied to her about the state of the pension and benefits system for educators.
Christie, in his 133rd town hall meeting, focused much of his presentation on pensions and benefits for public employees, one of his signature issues. Saying that the state was providing “platinum plus” benefits programs for public employees, the Republican said the state needs to do something to overhaul the system in order to address the state’s finances.
“This year in New Jersey, because of economic growth, we will have an extra billion dollars at the state level,” Christie said. “That billion dollars will be eaten up by pension costs, increased public employee benefits and debt service costs. What I call the sins of the past.”
Christie has long crusaded for an overhaul to the pension and benefits system for public employees, including winning changes in 2011 from the Democratic-controlled state Legislature that required state employees to contribute to their health benefits. Christie has pressed for increased changes, including a proposal this year to give control of the pension system to public employee unions and to address state contributions to the retirement system. He also said he would like to move new state employees into a 401(K) benefits retirement system.
As part of his speech prior to the question and answer period, Christie focused on public employee health benefits, noting that the state’s health package costs $31,000 per employee with the state contributing $26,000 of the cost and the employee $5,000. He said he wants to change what he called a “platinum plus” health plan to a “gold” plan. Christie placed blame with state unions and his predecessors and former state legislators for agreeing to the current plan.
Christie also said that new rules from the federal government under Obamacare are pressing his case for a change. He said under the federal health care plan, the state can be fined $750 million for the current plan unless it switches to the “gold plan.” The likely Republican presidential candidate did note that part of the fine is to pay for the health care program.
“It’s a penalty where they say to us ‘you people are crazy.’” Christie told the 400 people gathered in the elementary school gym in this Union County community.
During the question and answer period, Christie was confronted by a public school teacher who engaged in a prolonged debate with the governor over public employee benefits. Public school teachers at the town halls routinely confront Christie. His relations with the New Jersey Education Association have been almost non-existent since he first ran for governor in 2009.
The teacher stressed that she loves her job and had no problem with a lower salary than her friends in banking, but that she believed she’d be rewarded with a pension and free health care during and after her career.
“Teachers were getting lower salaries because of the pensions,” she said. “The payout was at the end.”
Christie told her that she would receive her pension and health benefits in retirement and said that his reform proposals would help secure her retirement. He also praised former Gov. Tom Kean (R) for increasing teacher salaries in the 1980s, saying it helped the teaching profession in New Jersey. Kean’s son, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield), was sitting in the audience.
Christie also placed the blame for the state’s pension woes with the NJEA saying the union kept asking for more money. He said that the average New Jersey teacher pension is $39,000 a year, while the nation average is $26,000 a year.
The teacher disagreed with Christie saying that the governor has hurt the educational system and not the union. She cited the 2010 cuts Christie made to state education aid as an example. Christie fought back, defending his cuts, saying they were needed because of cuts in aid from the federal government. He also said that he has increased education spending in every year since.
Christie then told the teacher that the union has not been truthful with her about the pension and benefits system’s financial issues.
“Part of the problem is your union is not telling you the truth,” Christie said.
Christie took a series of other questions ranging from two Brownies asking him his favorite color and dessert – blue and ice cream – to transportation funding and tourism spending.
In response to questions about the state’s new PARCC standardized testing program, Christie defended the plan saying that it would provide a way to evaluate students and was a key part of the state’s new teacher evaluation plan. He placed blame for computer issues on the computer-based tests with local school districts. He also said that the tests were computerized because of the coming change of the SATs and ACT to computers.
Christie again placed blame with the teacher’s union, saying that the union wanted to kill off the PARCC test in order to end teacher evaluations.
A student from Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School told Christie that the students were frustrated with the PARCC tests. He noted that due to the tests being on computers the school newspaper has been unable to function. He also said students are frustrated with the tests due to technology malfunctions and the time invested in the testing.
Christie told the student that the student is going to have to take the test and should not be upset.
“It’s a bummer, get over it,” Christie said. “If this is the biggest frustration you’ll have in life, you’ll have a great life”