By John Celock
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) took a break from the presidential campaign trail Tuesday to deliver his annual State of the State Address, which focused on many of the same themes he has made the core of his governorship.
Christie used much of the speech to attack state legislative Democrats for a proposed constitutional amendment to require state pension payments be guaranteed in the state budget, along with focusing his drug prevention programs and education reforms. Christie mixed a discussion of his record, a top part of his presidential campaign, with a focus on proposals for New Jersey governance. The speech comes after Christie was largely absent from the state over the last year as he focuses on his presidential aspirations.
Christie took aim at Washington saying that he has been able to govern in New Jersey with a Democratic Legislature, saying that governing is not occurring in Washington. This has been a familiar theme of many Christie speeches over the years.
“Now in Washington, that’s not true. All we’re going to hear about the big challenges that we face today as a nation is a lot of hot air from Congress and the White House,” Christie said. “The state of the union isn’t a call to action, it’s a fantasy wish list by a President who has failed us. It’s the world as he wishes it was; not the real world his failed leadership has left to all Americans.”
Christie spent much a chunk of the speech focused on his attack on the pension amendment, which was finalized by state lawmakers Monday in the closing hours of the previous legislative term. Christie has long been at odds with public employee unions, including the New Jersey Education Association, since taking office. In his address, Christie said that the amendment – which will go before state voters in a November 2016 ballot question – would cost the state a potential $3 billion tax hike or in cuts to other services.
“You have begun the pursuit of a constitutional amendment to guarantee pension payments over all other types of state spending. Ahead of funding for our hospitals. Ahead of support for our colleges and universities,” Christie said. “Ahead of taking care of people with disabilities. Ahead of paying for Medicaid. Ahead of rebuilding our roads and bridges. Ahead of jailing criminals. Ahead of replenishing our beaches. Ahead of feeding the most needy. Ahead of protecting our children from abuse. Ahead of helping children with autism and funding cancer research. Ahead of paying for homeland security for New Jersey’s mass transit system. How can I say that? “
Christie accused legislative Democrats of wanting to create a two-tier residential system in New Jersey, where he said that public pension recipients would become “special class citizens.”
“The health, welfare, security and success of the other 8.1 million New Jerseyans become second class concerns; pensions reign supreme. 8.1 million New Jerseyans would become second class citizens,” he said. “Public pensioners would be a special class of citizens whose retirement is protected above all other public concerns. Protected from recession. Protected from natural disaster. All of that would be in line behind union negotiated pensions – way behind.”
Christie accused Democrats of passing the amendment as a favor for the unions, saying that the unions have been large campaign contributors to Democrats. Christie called out the NJEA, a long time sparring partner of his, saying that the teacher’s union has donated $30 million to Democrats over the last two years.
Christie said the potential tax hikes to pay for the plan would hurt state residents. He said that a Democratic proposal to raise the millionaire’s tax would only bring in $600 million for the pension amendment. He said the rest of the money would have to come from either hiking the state’s sales tax from seven percent to 10 percent or a 23 percent income tax hike.
Christie spent much of the speech focused on drug addiction issues, noting that he has focused on the issue as a “public health risk” and not a criminal case. Among the proposals that Christie put forward in the drug area, is expanding the state’s recovery coach program to six new counties and spend $100 million for mental health and substance abuse care. He said that he wants to train more first responders in the signs of substance abuse.
Christie also said he wants to reopen a state prison that he closed last year to focus as a drug treatment facility for prison inmates.
Christie also focused on charter schools, a long time interest of his. He said that he wants to expand charter school use in the state, along with pursuing regulatory reform in terms of charter school location siting and teacher hiring.
State Democrats attacked the address, saying that Christie has presided over a failing economy and not addressing the state’s pension fund payments. Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees) used the Democratic response to say that Christie has not fully funded the pension plan and did not focus on the state’s nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund in his speech. Greenwald said that Christie wants to “vilify” state employees instead of announcing new ideas during his speech.
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson) used the Democratic response to say that Christie did not focus on the issues facing the state’s urban areas or homeless issues. Sumter said that Christie should be in the state more. Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schear (D-Passaic) used his part of the Democratic response to say that Christie is “preoccupied” with his presidential campaign.
Schear said that Democrats welcome several of the initiatives Christie outlined for drug abuse but questioned where the funding will come from. Christie is scheduled to deliver his annual budget address in February.
Christie ended his speech by calling on lawmakers not to focus on the 2017 gubernatorial race, where Christie will be unable to run due to term limits. He said that he wants to focus on governing. He also focused on a theme he outlined early in the speech where he said people told him that the state was unable to be governed, but he said that he shows that it can be.
“It’s undeniable that we’ve made a lot of progress in New Jersey over the last six years. There are things we’ve achieved that can be an inspiration and model for reformers in other states and at the national level. So let’s keep going forward together,” Christie said. There will always be naysayers, the talking heads in the media and the unabashed partisans who think only liberal Democrats achieve anything worthy of praise.”