BY TOM HESTER SR.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie in his State of the State address Tuesday called on the Democrats who control the Legislature to show bipartisanship and help him confront New Jersey's tax, education and public employee pension problems but they were not quick to agree.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) said of the address, "It's been painfully clear throughout the governor's first year in office that we are living in two very distinct and separate New Jerseys. In Chris Christie's New Jersey, he thinks he can say ‘buck up' and deal with my painful budget cuts and working and middle class families will simply fall in line without missing a beat."In the other New Jersey — the reality the rest of us live in — families are paying more for less and systematically being forced out of their way of life," Oliver said. "Working class women have lost access to critical healthcare. Seniors have lost their property tax rebates and the working poor have seen their Earned Income Tax Credit cut while the state's wealthiest received a tax break. Vital after-school programs have been slashed, while transit fares have been hiked. Meanwhile, our unemployment rate remains alarmingly high and the governor seems content with that.
"This year cannot be about more of the same," Oliver added. "This week the Legislature finished passing a package of roughly 30 bills designed to create real and lasting jobs and stimulate long-term economic growth. The fate of New Jerseyans everywhere is now in the governor's hands. If Governor Christie truly cares about turning New Jersey around, he will sign this package into law and he will do it quickly. We are now on year two of the Christie agenda and residents cannot afford to wait any longer."
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) joined Oliver in criticizing Christie.
"The governor says he wants to stay the course over the coming year," Sweeney said. "I certainly hope he doesn't mind taking an exit ramp, because New Jersey won't be able to afford to stay a course of higher property taxes and continually high unemployment.
"For his talk of ‘cutting the popular to fund the necessary,' it's obvious that in Chris Christie's New Jersey working families are popular, but millionaires are necessary," Sweeney said. "Working families see their schools as necessary, but the governor cut them anyway. Property tax relief is necessary, but he cut it anyway. Women's health is necessary, but he cut it anyway and refused to budge even when presented with realistic and bipartisan options.
"What is most necessary now is real action to improve our business climate and create jobs," Sweeney said. "The governor needs to remember that small businesses, not the millionaires among whom he's very popular, create jobs. We have presented the governor with 30 bills that are necessary to reposition our economy from one of stagnation and high unemployment to one of growth and opportunity. They would do exactly what the governor said he wants to do: roll back the taxes that are strangling small business. Nothing else is possible unless we get New Jersey back to work. There's no time to waste. The governor should sign these bills today so we can start tomorrow on a better course."
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Morris) had only praise for Christie's address.
"Governor Christie's remarks clearly show he remains focused on the primary goal of delivering relief to property taxpayers by reducing government spending and eliminating waste." DeCroce said. "The property tax reform measures contained in the (Christie) Tool Kit will continue to be our top priority. The governor's approach that confronts our problems with viable solutions is a refreshing change from the way Trenton has historically operated. The tax, borrow and spend days are a thing of the past.
"Property taxpayers finally have a reason to be optimistic as Governor Christie does more than talk about solving problems — he takes action," DeCroce said. "While there were many accomplishments over the course of the past 12 months, we know there is much more work to be done. Civil service, education, pension and ethics reforms must be addressed by the Legislature in order to restore the public's confidence that government works for them and not the special interests."
New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech, who represents 1 million unionized New Jerseyans, said Christie should be making job creation his top priority for 2011.
"When Governor Christie was talking about the top three priorities for the state of New Jersey, he left out the most important one: jobs," Wowkanech said. "We urge the governor to make job creation more of a priority in 2011, by investing in infrastructure and construction.
"One main reason the unemployment rate has dropped is because people have been out of work so long that they have stopped looking and they no longer count as unemployed,: Wowkanech said. "The unemployment rate doesn't even begin to count the hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans who are underemployed and cannot find full-time jobs."
Wowkanech questioned Christie's plan to roll back state income taxes, rather than focus on cutting the property taxes that are the state's biggest problem.
"The only people who got a tax cut in New Jersey last year were the wealthy," Wowkanech said. "Christie's cuts in school aid, municipal aid and property tax rebates were really a tax increase for working families."
Wowkanech did applaud Christie for noting that the state needs to begin to make its contribution to the pension system.
"We can't talk about pension reform without talking about the need for the state to join municipalities in paying its share of the bill," he said.Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, which represents 22,000 businesses in the state, said controlling government spending and putting the state on firm financial footing remain the keys to restoring New Jersey's reputation as a good place to operate a business.
"New Jersey's state government underwent huge changes this year, and the business community sat up and took notice," Kirschner said. "As a group, employers believe the state is heading in a positive direction, and they are happy that Governor Christie is committed to continuing that course.
"Governor Christie is right to focus on building on last year's successes in getting New Jersey's fiscal house in order and changing our reputation as an anti-business state," Kirschner said. "Providing financial stability to state government will give businesses confidence that they will not face the ruinous tax increases that have plagued the state in the past
"The Christie administration has made tremendous strides in cutting spending, reining in government bureaucracy and reforming regulations," Kirschner said. "And Christie has stood fast in his pledge not to raise taxes. All of these actions have built a foundation that will give the state's private sector the confidence to grow and create jobs. NJBIA has long argued that budget shortfalls should be addressed through spending cuts, not tax increases."
Carlos Perez, the CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, praised what he sees as Christie's commitment to education reform.
"We are pleased that one of the three ‘big things' the governor focused on in his speech is education reform and that charter schools are a crucial piece of that reform agenda," Perez said. "We stand ready to work with him and the Legislature to ensure his agenda is passed. It's not just about increasing the number of charter schools, but ensuring that those charters schools that are approved are providing the highest quality education to the children of our state."
Christie noted there are 73 charter schools existing in New Jersey and that he wants to see more open. The state Department of Education approved six new charter schools in 2010.Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) said, "Today, Governor Christie reiterated his disciplined agenda to push New Jersey forward and reignite our state's competitive advantage to attract businesses and create jobs. By reforming New Jersey's burdensome regulatory environment, enacting comprehensive tax reform and making government more efficient our state will become an attractive venue for businesses to locate, grow and once again create private sector jobs.
"Governor Christie understands that New Jersey has a unique economy and must compete in the global marketplace," Oroho said. "I am confident that in the near future New Jersey will once again become a financial powerhouse characterized by a competitive tax and regulatory structure and strong, sustainable job growth."