TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivered his annual budget address on Tuesday, eagerly hoping to get his state’s finances in order as he tries to keep his 2016 presidential prospects alive. But in an ironic twist of fate, the speech came just a day after a judge declared that Christie broke state law when he refused to make the full payment last year to the state’s beleaguered pension system.
A confident Christie used his speech to highlight a $33.8 billion budget without tax increases and to try and show he can work with adversaries – only making a vague reference to the Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson’s decision.
“The numbers do not lie, and we don’t need any court to tell us we have a serious problem. I have stood behind this podium for five years speaking candidly about this problem,” said Christie to a standing-room only crowd in the legislative chambers of the state’s capitol. “We acted in 2011 to acknowledge and begin to repair this serious problem. We now have a bipartisan reform plan which can, once and for all, fix this problem. No one branch of government can wish or order this problem away. We must do it together.”
Unions and public workers sued Christie’s administration last year after the governor said he wouldn’t make the full pension payment (to fill a revenue shortfall) he had initially agreed to in 2011 – one of his biggest accomplishments in office. After the judge’s ruling on Tuesday, the governor said in a statement that he would appeal the decision to a higher court and blamed “liberal judicial activism.”
The budget address comes at a critical time for Christie with a number of news stories slowing down his national momentum in recent days.
The Washington Post reported last week that Christie’s home-state donors are turning to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Politico ran a survey showing Christie dropping from the top tier of 2016 candidates; and a spate of recent polls indicate New Jersey residents believe Christie cares more about the Oval Office than leading the Garden State.
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During the address, Christie also announced that the New Jersey Education Association—a major teachers union–has backed his “roadmap” for pension reform. It’s somewhat of a win for the governor, who earned a reputation for battling with state teachers unions, especially the NJEA. But the union said it had agreed to work with the administration, no final agreement was made.
Christie, during his remarks, called for the current pension plan to be frozen and eventually replaced with a different one. Under the plan, there would be a constitutional amendment mandating the state of meet pension obligations over the next 40 years.
The speech gave Christie an opportunity to show how he’d take the financial reins if he becomes president. He said, “I will not stop telling hard truths” and “Inaction is unacceptable. Repeating the mistakes of the past would be irresponsible.”
Still, additional financial troubles in his state loom in the state which has seen eight credit downgrade’s since Christie took office.
Besides the pension system dilemma, the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is $16 billion in debt will be insolvent by July 1. To replenish the fund, which pays for roads and public transport, some members of the Democratic-controlled legislature have proposed raising the state’s 14.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax. Christie did not mention the fund at all, something state Democrats criticized after the speech. “We can’t push it off,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, adding he was “very disappointed in the budget address” and that more revenue will be needed for the pension fund.
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With the budget address in his rearview mirror, the governor will turn to a format he knows best – town halls. Christie is scheduled to hold one in Moorestown on Wednesday and is expected to talk about his proposed budget. It will be his 128th town hall meeting since taking office, but his first in about five months.
In the coming months, Christie will also begin holding a series of town hall meetings in the early vote of New Hampshire. The Granite State is emerging as a do-or-die 2016 state for Christie, a northeastern moderate who experts say would have trouble in other critical early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina – where voters tend to cast their ballots for strict social conservatives.