TRENTON – In his first State of the State address, Gov. Chris Christie challenged lawmakers to tackle three big issues that are vital for New Jersey’s future.
Christie spoke of the need to maintain fiscal discipline, fix the state’s pension and health benefits system to save it, and repair the school system to it the best in the nation.
“Next month, I will present to you my budget for fiscal year 2012,” Christie said. “I will guarantee you this. It will be balanced, and it will not raise taxes.”
The governor mentioned that Medicaid and health care costs, school and municipal aid and state spending as areas to be addressed when balancing the budget. He spoke of “cutting the popular in order to fund the necessary.”
“The second big issue we must tackle this year is our antiquated and unsustainable pension and benefit system,” Christie said. “Nearly 75 percent — three out of every four dollars— of our state’s municipal and county budgets are driven by personnel and labor costs.”
He spoke of raising the retirement age, limiting the impact of cost of living increases and “modest but acceptable contribution from employees” to fix the pension system. He also said that the state must begin to make its required pension contributions.
The governor also called for an end to the tenure system, which makes it difficult for school districts to remove teachers. “The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now,” Christie said. He also called for rewarding good teachers with merit pay and basing layoffs on merit rather than seniority.
“We also agree that methods of compensation which recognize performance should be seriously considered by local school boards and their employees,” said Marie S. Bilik, the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. “Most school employees are dedicated professionals who should not fear these types of reforms, as long as a fair and consistent evaluation process is in place. And development of such an evaluation system is a key element of the administration’s proposed reforms.”
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce said, “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.”
“The Governor has once again shown that he is willing to lead and make the difficult choices our state’s economy desperately needs,” said Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, Jr. “He laid out an agenda today that is precisely what the public demands: an affordable state government, property tax relief, the creation of permanent jobs, and the opportunity for every child to receive a quality education and to pursue a higher education.”
Not everyone shared Christie’s views.
“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,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic).
“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.”
“When Governor Christie was talking about the top three priorities for the State of New Jersey, he left out the most important one: jobs,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO. “We urge the governor to make job creation more of a priority in 2011, by investing in infrastructure and construction.”
Wowkanech did credit the governor for acknowledging the need for the state to begin making its contributions to the pension system.
NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said that the teacher’s union is ready to enter the discussion about education and pension reform, but attacked Christie’s proposals.
“His combative rhetoric is wearing thin,” she said. “It’s time for Governor Christie to work collaboratively with NJEA and the entire education community for reforms that are supported by research, and which will benefit all students.”
Senator Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex), the vice chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, criticized Christie for considering cuts to the state’s Medicaid program.
“Cutting these programs shifts the burden of the budget deficit onto people who have little or no ability to afford the cost of necessary medical care,” he said. “Not only would this create a health care catastrophe, it will drive up costs for our already ailing hospital system and increase health care premiums for those already insured.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, criticized the governor’s plans for the environment.
“What we see in the Governor’s State of the State are further cuts and weakenings of core environmental programs,” he said. “The amount of proposed cuts and weakening of environmental programs is alarming. In the history of New Jersey, we have never seen so many attacks on the environment happen so quickly.”
You can view the governor’s speech as prepared for delivery at http://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/news/552010/approved/20110111d.html
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