BY TOM HESTER SR.
In his first State of the State address Tuesday before a joint session of the Legislature, Gov. Chris Christie declared New Jersey needs "comprehensive tax reform," but added he will not consider tax breaks or any economic incentive proposals without a balanced 2011-12 budget.
"In my budget next month, I will propose the initial installment of such a package," the governor said. "But let's be clear: We will not put in place tax cuts that we can't pay for. Any economic incentive package that I will sign will be enacted in the context, and only in the context, of a balanced budget."
Christie said, "Next month, I will present to you my budget for fiscal year 2012. I will guarantee you this: It will be balanced, and it will not raise taxes. When I talk of controlling spending, I am doing it for a reason. I am not proposing to cut spending just for cutting's sake. I am fighting this fight because we have to be truthful about what we can't afford — whether it is health and pension benefits which are out of line with the rest of the country, or a tunnel which we can't pay for."I am asking for shared sacrifice so that when we leave here, New Jersey will be more fiscally sound than when we got here," Christie told legislators. "I am asking for shared sacrifice in cutting what we don't need so that we can invest in what we absolutely do need."
The governor's address lasted 37 minutes and was interrupted by applause 20 times. He was welcomed to the Assembly chamber by a round of applause from legislators and a packed gallery that included his cabinet that that lasted 2 minutes and 20 seconds.
Christie opened his address by calling for a moment of silence for the victims of the Tucson, Ariz. shooting on Saturday. He called the event, "An extraordinary tragedy" and "an attack on public life in America.'
The governor received his loudest applause — at least from the Republican aise of the aisle — when he again declared war on the New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teachers‘ union and called for an end to tenure for public school teachers.
"Perhaps the biggest thing of all for the future of our state — is education reform," the governor said. "We cannot ask children and families stuck in chronically failing public schools to wait any longer. It is not acceptable that a child who is neglected in a New Jersey school must accept it because of their zip code."
Christie said he and the Legislature must empower public school principals, reform poor-performing public schools or close them, cut out-of-classroom costs and focus efforts on teachers and students.
"I propose that we reward the best teachers, based on merit, at the individual teacher level," the governor said. "I demand that layoffs, when they occur, be based on a merit system and not merely on seniority.
"I am committed to improving the measurement and evaluation of teachers, and I have an expert task force of teachers, principals, and administrators working on that issue right now," Christie said.
"And perhaps the most important step in that process is to give schools more power to remove underperforming teachers," the governor added. "The time for a national conversation on tenure is long past due. Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure to perform. New Jersey lead the way again. The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now."
Democrats in the Legislature and the NJEA oppose layoffs based a teacher's ability or heavy review of their ability.
Christie said the other big issue he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature must tackle is what he sees as an antiquated and unsustainable pension and benefit system.
"I am not proposing pension and benefit reforms just to be tight-fisted," the governor said. "I am proposing pension reform for the police officers who have served — and contributed — for years, but who may find nothing when they retire a decade from now.
"I am proposing pension reform for the firefighters who every day put their lives in danger to serve the public — and who have the right to expect that when the time comes, the public will serve them.," the governor said. "I am proposing pension reform for the teachers who put in the extra hours every day to help their students. We now must put in the extra hours to ensure the system is solvent for them. so to every beneficiary of the system: I am fighting for your pension."
Christie continued, "And to the members of the legislature, I say: Please join me in doing so. Now as part of our negotiation on interest arbitration, the leadership of the Legislature promised to take up this necessary package of pension and benefit reforms. Now is the time for us to finish what we started last March. We should pass this package now. If you do, I will immediately sign it into law."
The governor declared life in New Jersey is improving with each passing day.
"State spending is down 9 percent in one year," he said. "The budget has been balanced. State taxes are lower — for the first time in a decade. The unemployment rate (9.2 percent) has begun to drop — and today is below, not above, the national average. Companies are beginning to take a second look at New Jersey.
"Together, we have begun to do something no one thought was possible: we are turning our sate around," Christie said. "Without a doubt, there is much work still to be done. But we cannot turn back now. Make no mistake: New Jersey is coming back."
Christie said that in his first year in office, the 2090-10 state budget was over $2 billion in deficit — with the year more than half gone and options shrinking fast.
"The state was actually in danger of running out of cash — within weeks of not being able to meet payroll," he said. "We faced a deficit for (2010-11) fiscal year ‘11 that was projected to be $11 billion — equal to 37 percent of the budget — the largest deficit, in proportional terms, in the country. Property taxes had risen 70 percent in the prior 10 years. Independent analysts concluded we had the highest overall tax burden in America. Unemployment was at 10 percent — the highest in a generation, the highest in the region, and above the national average. Wealth, and jobs, and people were leaving our state. The New Jersey we love — the New Jersey of our youth — was in danger of slipping away."
The governor then pointed to how he believes that he and the Legislature have improved the state.
"Within three weeks of taking office, we took immediate action to prevent a financial crisis and stabilize the state's finances," Christie said. "We balanced that (2009-10) fiscal year ‘10 budget by holding back what spending could be stopped, and averted New Jersey's cash crisis. We enacted the first steps in reforming our system of pensions and benefits — saving state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We enacted legislation to head off the looming crisis in our unemployment insurance system — preventing a tax increase of as much as $700 per employee for many employers," he said "We made a down payment — with unanimous support in the Legislature, by the way — on an education reform package which created a permanent interdistrict public school choice program. And we approved 6 new charter schools in New Jersey — a small first step... but with many more to come... Soon.
"We passed an (2010-11) fiscal year ‘11 budget which restored some sense of fiscal sanity — it required spending cuts from every department of state government — but we closed that $11 billion budget gap — without raising taxes," Christie said. " Most importantly, we took action on the problem which the people of New Jersey have been crying out for us to solve — the growth of their property taxes. We capped that growth at 2 percent per year. Then, we made the cap real by limiting interest arbitration awards to 2% as well. And in one year, New Jersey has gone from being a basket case to being a national model."
Christie stressed that he believes the culture of New Jersey's state government has been turned, as he put it, upside down and although his first year in office has featured constant verbal battles with Democratic legislative leaders, he praises them for helping to bring about the change.
"The issues I have highlighted today are difficult," the governor said. "No doubt, in the months ahead, we will have to fight. Some might even say that I have been too ready for a fight — that my approach has been too tough and too combative. That's for a reason. It is because the fight is important. It is vital. The reality is I'll fight when it matters. It matters because I have seen what so many New Jersey families are dealing with each day.
"For them this is not about politics — it is about their life," Christie said. "I fight when the issues are big — when it matters the most. Sometimes that means we won't agree. Sometimes you will oppose my proposals, and I will oppose yours. Sometimes I will veto a bill. But when I do so, it will because I genuinely believe it's in the best interest of the people of New Jersey.
"In the last year, we have begun a new movement in New Jersey," the governor told lawmakers. "A movement back to our roots. Back to economic dynamism and growth. Back to pride in our state. We cannot say today where it will lead and all that will come of it. But we know that the path of change is better than the path of stagnation that we were on.
"I was determined when I took the oath of this office to give the people an honest assessment of our problems," Christie said. "To tell them the truth, even if it was difficult and my proposed solutions were unpopular. And to this day, I ask that I be measured by that standard — I will always do what I said I was going to do. I may not offer the easiest course, but I will be direct in saying which course I believe to be the best."
The governor exited the Assembly chamber to applause that lasted one minute and 40 seconds.