The Magazine

‘If you tax them, they will leave’

Chris Christie seeks to mend the broke and broken state of New Jersey.

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By FRED BARNES
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The feud intensified last week when a union official posted a prayer for Christie’s death on the Facebook page of New Jersey Teachers United Against Governor Chris Christie’s Pay Freeze. Union president Barbara Keshishian apologized in person to Christie. But when he said the official should be fired, “She left my office in a huff,” he says. The union, by the way, ran television ads last year opposing Christie in the governor’s race in which he defeated the incumbent, Democrat Jon Corzine.

The breadth of change proposed by Christie—“bold action now to reverse the direction we have taken for many years”—has surprised many New Jerseyans. He was less candid during the campaign, for a reason. Voters “wanted back then what he’s doing now,” said Russ Schriefer, Christie’s media consultant. “But he couldn’t do it now if he’d said it back then.” Corzine would have killed him with attack ads.

“The day of reckoning has arrived,” Christie declared in his budget address. “The attitude has always been the same—continue to spend, continue to borrow, and drop the catastrophic sum of all these poor choices into the lap of the next guy. Well, time has run out. The bill has come due.”

He stressed his aversion to new taxes. “I was not sent here to approve tax increases. I was sent here to veto them. .  .  . It is time for the tax madness to end.” Raising taxes “would be insane,” he said. “If you are unemployed and support tax increases, be ready to stay unemployed. .  .  . We have the worst unemployment in the region and the highest taxes in America, and that’s no coincidence.”

Christie’s most ambitious proposal is to cap state spending and local property tax increases at 2.5 percent a year. This would require a three-fifths vote of the legislature and approval by voters in a referendum this November. And he wants to curb sharply the power of public employee unions. “We must have collective bargaining reform that respects these new caps.” He accused the unions of “excesses” in pay raises, benefits, and pensions.

Though his agenda is far-reaching, Christie has the power to get much or all of it done. New Jersey has “the strongest constitutional governorship in the country,” he told me. He has three types of veto authority, one allowing him to rewrite legislation. He appoints the attorney general, controller, every judge and county prosecutor, and the members of 700 boards, authorities, and commissions. “It’s a pretty powerful job,” Christie notes.

He is using all his prerogatives. Three weeks into office, he declared “a state of fiscal emergency” and froze $2.2 billion in 2010 spending by executive order. He spurned calls to relent on the “millionaire’s tax.” “There’s no chance I’ll sign this tax .  .  . no chance,” he told the businesswomen last week.

His lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, has been assigned to examine every state regulation for possible elimination. “Whatever she recommends I can do by executive action, I’ll do by executive action,” Christie says. 

He has “a lot of leverage” over the 2011 budget. A balanced budget is mandatory, and the legislature cannot exceed the revenue projection of the state treasurer and the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services—unless there’s a tax increase, which Christie would veto. 

He also got Democratic leaders to back him on pension reform, requiring state workers to contribute
1.5 percent of their income for retirement and health benefits. The Democratic state senate president, Stephen Sweeney, has begun sounding like Christie. “The governor and I agree wholeheartedly, we have too much government, there’s too many layers, there’s too much of it and we need to shrink it and we need to cut it.”

But what Christie calls “Trenton’s addiction to spending” remains strong. The legislature approved $800 million in new spending after the election and was still handing out money on the morning of Christie’s inauguration. The program of “extraordinary and special” aid to municipalities had been suspended for lack of funds. But extra revenues suddenly appeared. Christie dispatched an official to halt the dispensing of funds moments after he was sworn in. It was too late. Seventy million dollars were already gone.

Now the governor wants the entire state to, as he puts it, “jump off the cliff” with him. “The watchwords of this [2011] budget are shared sacrifice and fairness,” he says. “Individuals contribute, businesses sacrifice, local governments tighten their belts, and we end our addiction to spending. Everyone comes to the center of the room—we jump off the cliff together to stave off certain fiscal death for the hope of salvation tomorrow.”

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