Chris Christie’s budget address yesterday, to a joint session of the New Jersey legislature, focused on one of the Republican party’s major themes going forward into elections in 2014 and 2016: public employees are the enemy and their healthcare and pension benefits—hard-fought and hard-won accomplishments by unions and others—need to be cut to shreds. That’s the message of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who, if he gets re-elected this year and then decides to run for president in 2016, will tout his decimation of Wisconsin’s public employee unions as his chief accomplishment. For Christie, who’s also taken on the teachers and other public employees since being elected in 2009, the issue yesterday was New Jersey’s public pension system and other “entitlements.”
Much of the coverage of Christie’s speech yesterday focused on the fact that the governor was not his usual bombastic self, and indeed Christie managed to work into his speech a mention of Gandhi. The Newark Star-Ledger, in its lede, put it this way: “There was no talk of a Jersey comeback, no bold calls for tax cuts. And no raucous applause.”
But don’t be fooled. Again and again in his address, Christie returned to the idea that public-employee pensions are bankrupting the state, and again and again he urged the legislators about the need to “act decisively.” Earlier reforms, said Christie, “bought us the time to act again.” If not, well, said Christie, New Jersey may end up like Detroit! Referring to past pension changes, Christie said, “But this is not enough.” And he referred to what he called a “looming crisis.”
Some history: back in 2011, over vast, angry protests from unions, Christie and the state legislature enacted a sweeping pension law that hit teachers and public employees like a wrecking ball. It drastically raised the amount that employees had to contribute to their pensions, cut benefits for future workers and eliminated cost-of-living adjustments—and remember, most public employees aren’t eligible for Social Security, so the pension is all they’ve got. That devastating law was enacted only because what left-liberals in New Jersey call “Christiecrats”—that is, Democrats who play ball with the right-wing governor—joined Christie to support it. The bill that passed the legislature “defied raucous protests by thousands of people whose chants, vowing electoral revenge, shook the State House.” And among the chief culprits back in 2011 was Steve Sweeney, the president of the senate and a leading acolyte of South Jersey’s warlord, the political boss George Norcross, an insurance magnate. Back in 2011, Sweeney bitterly attacked the unions: “They lied to their members. When I say lied, I mean it. They lied.” This time around, under pressure from the unions, even Sweeney isn’t going along with Christie’s call to further weaken pensions—at least not yet.
That doesn’t mean that Christie isn’t preparing a dangerous new assault, if for nothing else to gain talking points with the Republican faithful and the big-dollar donors who back Christie. According to the Bergen Record, many political analysts in New Jersey “suspect that Christie might be waiting to roll out a new round of benefit cuts next year, closer to the start of the presidential primaries and, possibly, when the [Bridgegate] scandal fades without further damage to his career.” If that’s true, then Christie’s clarion call for action on pensions is merely the harbinger of a much bigger push to come. Anything you can do, Christie is telling Scott Walker, I can do better.
New Jersey’s unions aren’t laying down. Here’s a sample, thanks to the Record’s indispensable blog, The Political State.
Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, rejected Christie’s assertion that pension costs are “exploding”:
He is doing the wrong thing by misleading New Jersey residents about the state of the pension system. Pension costs are not “exploding.” As a result of deep, painful cuts absorbed by public employees and retirees in 2011, pension costs going forward have been curtailed, and the state is finally on the road to responsible, sustainable pension funding practices.
Said Charles Wowkanech, president of New Jersey State AFL-CIO:
Public employees, unlike the state, have never skipped a payment into the pension system. And, over the past three years, they’ve paid even more to try to bring the funds back to health. At the least, they deserve a state finally willing to shoulder its share of the responsibility so we can climb out of this hole together.
And Hetty Rosenstein, director of the Communications Workers of America’s New Jersey branch, added that Christie wants voters to “hate public employees”:
We are not changing pensions. … I think it’s a diversion. … He’s throwing out red meat—[saying] “Let’s go back to the old bugaboo. Everyone should hate public employees. All of your problems are public employees and their entitlements. And don’t look at the man behind the curtain of Bridgegate, of Hurricane Sandy.” Last year, all we heard about was Hurricane Sandy, Sandy, Sandy, Sandy. This year we’re back to the public employees.
At a town meeting in North Jersey the day after his budget speech, Christie castigated Democrats for defending workers’ benefits saying, “Democrats don’t want to take the hard steps to reign in entitlement spending.” And he warned that if the legislature didn’t go along with new pension changes he wants, he’ll have to take “extreme measures.” He said:
I’m ready work with the entire Legislature to come up with ideas to fix this, but if they’re unwilling to that do that, this is a problem we’re going to own. I’m willing to take more extreme measures.
He added: “Detroit is giving us a preview of what could happen to us. It’s the trailer of what could happen to us if we don’t get on this even more now.”
Consider yourself warned.