BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday proposed reducing the state income tax for every New Jerseyan by 10 percent and restoring the earned income tax credit for New Jersey’s working poor.
The surprise proposals came as the highlights of the governor’s annual State of the State address before a joint session of the Legislature in Trenton. Christie opened his 41-minute speech by declaring “the New Jersey comeback has begun.”
Christie also called again for changing tenure for public school teachers and the end of bail for violent criminals while awaiting trial.
The governor said the 2012-13 state budget he will unveil in March will be built to allow for the 10 percent income tax reduction.
Beginning in January 2013, the tax cut would be phased in over three years. The earned income tax credit also would take effect the same month.
“I will fulfill a promise I made to all the people of New Jersey in 2009,” he said. “Real relief from the heavy income tax burden that has strangled our families and forced many to move away. I propose to reduce income tax rates for each and every New Jerseyan. In every tax bracket. By 10 percent across the board.
“I also propose to fully restore the earned income tax credit for New Jersey’s working poor, which we were forced to cut during the dark days of 2010, when growth was gone and we had no money,” the governor added. “Understand what this means – every New Jerseyan will get a cut in taxes. The working poor. The struggling middle class. The new college graduates getting their first job. The senior citizens who have already retired. The single mom. The job creators. The parents trying to afford to send their son or daughter to college. Everyone made the sacrifice. Everyone will share in the benefit.”
Christie added, "An across the board tax cut is fair – every New Jersey taxpayer will benefit," Christie said. "Every New Jerseyan’s rates will go down. Every New Jerseyan will see relief. This is exactly what I was talking about when I took office; that the tough choices would lead to the right ones.”
Christie’s proposals come as Democrats who control the Legislature and will continue to do so during the last two years of his term, announced they intend to pass the so-called “millionaires‘ tax,“ an income tax hike for New Jersey’s 16,000 wealthiest residents. The move is designed, in part, to embarrass Christie politically if he continued to oppose it. Now, the governor’s strategists are forcing the Democrats to support the tax cut or face political embarrassment.
"Here is my promise to the people of New Jersey," Christie said. "We will keep the momentum going. I will not permit anyone to re-impose the tax raising, overspending, irresponsible ways of our past which led to our dark decade of joblessness in New Jersey. Stand strong with me and I will stand up for you. We are going in the right direction and I will oppose any move to return us to the despair those policies brought to New Jersey and its citizens."
“For New Jersey, the corner has been turned,” Christie said. “Today, the debate is not about who to blame for our failures, it is how to build on our successes. It is no longer about how to deal with devastating decline; it is now about how to push New Jersey even further ahead. To be better than we thought we could be.
“In these last two years New Jersey has set the standard for governance in America: be honest; don’t mince words; and do the big and difficult things,” the governor said. “Not only because it is right, but because it lays the foundation for future greatness. Now it’s our job to finish the task.”
Christie said what he calls “tenure reform” for teachers would lead to greater student achievement because, he maintained, replacing under performing teachers with even an average teacher raises each classroom’s lifetime earnings by over a quarter of a million dollars.
“Let’s act on real tenure reform now,” the governor said. “Let’s replace despair with hope in every classroom in New Jersey.”
Christie describe the tenure reform he wants to see:
“By measuring teacher effectiveness, both with professional observation, and objective, quantifiable measures of student achievement – and then by giving tenure to those with strong evaluations, and taking it away from those whose ratings are unacceptably weak. We cannot ask parents to accept failure in teachers when their children’s lives hang in the balance;
“Second, if layoffs are necessary remove the least effective teachers instead of just the most junior ones. It is time to end the system of “last in, first out,” which protects some of the worst and penalizes some of the best;
“Third, pay teachers more when they are assigned to a failing school or to teach a difficult subject. Compensation should be designed to attract and retain effective teachers where we need them most;
"Fourth, end forced placements. Teachers should not be assigned to schools without the mutual consent of the teacher and the principal. If an acceptable placement can’t be found in 12 months, the school district should have the right to place the teacher on permanent unpaid leave;
“Fifth, we should reform our process for authorizing charter schools to attract the best operators to New Jersey, to streamline the process for the best performers, to focus on our failing school districts and to encourage innovation. We must give parents and children in failing schools an alternative; and
“Last, and perhaps most importantly, establish tax credits to provide scholarships for low income students in the worst-performing schools in the state to enable them to attend a better school, either out of the district or a private school. Opportunity should not be offered to only those in an excellent school district or with parents who have the money to release their children from the prison that is a failing school. Let’s pass the opportunity scholarship act now.
The governor also declared, “It is time to admit that the Supreme Court’s grand experiment with New Jersey children is a failure (court-mandated funding of urban schools). 63 percent of state aid over the years has gone to the (poor, mainly urban) Abbott Districts and the schools are still predominantly failing.
“What we’ve been doing isn’t working for children in failing districts, it is unfair to the other 557 school districts and to our state’s taxpayers, who spend more per pupil than almost any state in America,” Christie said. “Basic human decency and simple common sense say it is time for a different and better approach.
“My proposals reflect the input the administration has received at hundreds of meetings with educators, parents and professionals around the state,” the governor said. “They are supported by independent research done at Harvard and Columbia. Most importantly, they reflect the intention we should all have: to put children first."
Christie began his proposal of no bail for violent offenders awaiting trial by telling of his meeting with Cassandra Dock of Newark who asked him if he was concerned about violence in the city.
“And she ended her question with a plea. ‘Help us,’ she said, ‘Help us,’ the governor said. He added," ask all of you to send a message that in New Jersey we are creating a place where everyone is given the opportunity to live the life they want. I ask all of you to join me in saying to Cassandra. Yes, we will help you.”
Christie proposed what he calls a bail reform package, which he said is similar to federal regulations, in which violent criminals are denied bail while awaiting trial. He said the proposal may require a constitutional amendment, which would need to be approved by voters.
“It would keep offenders with a history of violence who are a danger to our communities in jail until the time of their trial, instead of releasing them into society to prey on the public.” He added, “Do you know that if a person is arrested with a long record of violence we cannot detain that person in jail pending trial? We must release that person, regardless of how dangerous they are to potential witnesses against them or innocent members of our society. Let us amend our bail laws to allow judges to consider the factor of dangerousness to our communities before we release a violent person back on to the street to maim or kill while they await trial. This, too, is just simple common sense.”
Christie also called for reclaiming the lives of non-violent drug offenders by mandating treatment for them in an in-house, secure facility – rather than putting them in prison.
“Experience has shown that treating non-violent drug offenders is two-thirds less expensive than housing them in prison,” the governor said. “And more importantly – as long as they have not violently victimized society – everyone deserves a second chance, because no life is disposable.
“I am not satisfied to have this as merely a pilot project; I am calling for a transformation of the way we deal with drug abuse and incarceration in every corner of New Jersey. So today I ask this Legislature and the (state Supreme Court) chief justice to join me in this commitment that no life is disposable,” Christie said. He added, “It will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse – we want to help you, not throw you away. We will require you to get treatment. Your life has value. Every one of God’s creations can be redeemed. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
The Assembly chamber was filled to capacity for Christie’ third State of the State address, a speech required under the state Constitution. Besides legislators, the governor’s cabinet and the justices of the Supreme Court attended as well as some past governors, including Gov. James McGreevey, who made what is believed to be only his second Statehouse appearance since resigning amid scandal in 2005.
A friend of Christie, who asked to remain unidentified, described the address as important but not critical for the governor.
The governor took credit for what he believes is the state’s improving economy.
“Since our administration came into office, New Jersey has added over 60,000 new private sector jobs,” he said. “Remember, in 2009, the state lost 117,000 jobs. According to Rutgers University economist Joseph Seneca, 2011 was the best private sector job growth year in New Jersey since 2000. Sixty thousand new private sector jobs since we took office. The best job growth year in more than 11 years."
Christie concluded his address by asking the Democratic Legislature to work with him. “Over the last two years, New Jersey is now seen around the country once again, not exclusively as the butt of late night jokes, but as a focus of the evening news and the Sunday talk shows,” he said. “Why? Because, once again, we are leading America – by taking on the big things in public policy.
"Let’s be under no illusions – our job in turning New Jersey around is far from finished," the governor said. "We have improved our tax climate – but, there is much work to be done.
“To everyone in this room, to everyone watching in their home or listening in their car, I have one simple message: for the New Jersey Comeback to continue and grow, we must all come together," continued Christie. "That is what the next two years of my governorship will be dedicated to every day. We have climbed out of the hole that was left to us – together. Now it is time to raise the great flag of the State of New Jersey as high as we can – together. I cannot do it alone. Republicans cannot do it alone. Democrats cannot do it alone.”