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.