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Christie holds town hall amid second bridge probe

The town hall in Camden County also comes as the Republican pushes a controversial plan to cut state pension payments.
Image: Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering at a town hall meeting on June 25, 2014, in Haddon Heights, N.J.

HADDON HEIGHTS, New Jersey – Embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie held a town hall meeting on Wednesday in Camden County amid controversial plans to cut state pension payments and as news surfaced that federal investigators have launched a second bridge probe that’s linked to the Republican’s administration.

The governor, who is considering running for president in 2016, has begun laying out a case to cut planned pension contributions to fill a $2.7 billion budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year. Democrats, meanwhile, want to raise the revenue by other means, including increasing income taxes on residents who rake in more than $1 million a year. The budget’s June 30th deadline is fast approaching and no deal is in sight.

Christie said to applause at the friendly Atlantic Avenue School town hall that he will veto any tax increase and argued the Democrats’ plan would affect residents making a minimum of $400,000 a year. “I simply don’t believe that for the most overtaxed people in America already that what we need to do is raise more taxes … People [will] leave [the state] and when people leave, jobs leave with them,” he said. Christie added that the defined benefit pension system “is becoming a dinosaur” and “we cannot tax people enough to keep up with the payments.”

Critics don't see it that way. Christie wants to slash this year’s payment to $696 million, which is less than half of the planned $1.58 billion. For fiscal year 2015, he wants to cut the payment to $681 million, which is less than a third of the $2.25 billion he initially agreed to.

Carol Wright, a 64-year-old retired teacher who lives in Sicklerville came with a sign that read “Christie for president” with a cross through it. “Money was supposed to be put in the pension fund. He thinks he’s above the law and that’s my income I was promised,” she said.

Martin Schoettler, a biology teacher from Barrington, also railed against the pension plan and the cost of living raises cut from retired teachers. The 60-year-old also has serious concerns about the bridge scandals and alleged misuse of Hurricane Sandy funds. “I’m worried about it all,” he said.

The questions at the town hall in Haddon Heights – 11 miles from Philadelphia – were more personal in nature with subjects ranging from Hurricane Sandy-affected rental properties, to standardized school testing to family court law. Noticeably, the bridge investigations did not come up.

Federal investigators are now looking into whether his office may have inappropriately used Port Authority of New York and New Jersey funds for construction to the Pulaski Skyway (which connects Jersey City and Newark), and sits outside the Port Authority’s jurisdiction.  Officials are looking into whether or not the move violated securities law. The probe was first reported by the New York Times.

Christie’s administration is also under several state and federal investigations looking into the governor’s staffers and Port Authority allies closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge back in September – seemingly for political retribution. Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the scheme.

The governor -- who once led the pack in the nascent race to become the GOP presidential nominee -- is clearly trying to move beyond so-called “Bridgegate.” Earlier this month, he appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon – his first foray back into late-night comedic television since his administration was rocked by the allegations. He also spoke to donors at Mitt Romney’s three day political retreat in Utah and keynoted the annual Faith & Freedom “Road to Majority” conference in Washington D.C., where thousands of evangelicals are set to gather and hear from potential 2016 candidates.

Last week, Christie also visited New Hampshire -- which holds the first-in-the-nation presidential primary -- as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. The trip fueled speculation that, despite his troubles, the governor is seriously considering a bid for the Oval Office.  

Christie was asked by reporters about a recent report by Esquire, which quoted sources insisting that four of the governor’s former aides and associates are facing “near certain” federal corruption indictments (related to the George Washington Bridge scandal) by a grand jury at the request of U.S. attorney Paul Fishman as early as next month.

“Nothing,” said the governor when asked what he thought about the report. “I don’t respond to every crazy rumor that’s out there.”