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1-15-14 State of The State Message - Early Take-Away
Statehouse Bureau- Christie tries to move on as cloud of scandal hangs over State of the State address

Statehouse Bureau- Christie tries to move on as cloud of scandal hangs over State of the State address

Tuesday, January 14, 2014    Last updated: Tuesday January 14, 2014, 10:44 PM


STATE HOUSE BUREAU (the Record, Star Ledger)

Related: Full text of Governor Christie's State of the State Address

Extending school days and the school year. Keeping those accused of violent crimes in jail until they go to trial. Changing civil service laws to encourage local-government consolidation.

With the cloud of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure controversy still looming over him, Governor Christie laid out a series of proposals in his State of the State address Tuesday as he worked to show the voters who overwhelmingly supported him last year that he’s not letting a scandal get in the way of his job.

Photos: New Legislature sworn in as Governor Christie delivers State of the State

He opened by addressing the controversy directly, but quickly moved on to highlighting the accomplishments of his first four years in office and offering a series of initiatives – many old and some new – that will set the stage for his second term.

“This administration and this Legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed, for any reason,” he said, drawing applause and standing ovations from many Republican members, as most Democrats sat silent. “I am the leader of this state and its people, and I stand here today proud to be both and always determined to do better.”

Related: Democrats find fault with Christie's speech

In the 45-minute speech, he repeatedly played to the strengths of his first term and the issues that propelled him to a runaway reelection and a prominent spot on the national stage. Specifically, he renewed calls to end payouts to public employees for unused sick time and to cut the cost of government by preventing municipalities from increasing fees on services as a way around the local property tax cap.

He also said he wanted to give vouchers to students in failing public schools so they may attend private schools, and he pledged to continue to direct non-violent drug users into treatment programs instead of prison.

Republicans walked away from the speech with a renewed focus on one of Christie’s signature themes: controlling property taxes.

But Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature said Christie left open the possibility that he would go back on an agreement to increase payments into the state’s underfunded public-employee pension fund and instead use that money to pay for new proposals.

Although Christie often repeated a call for the bipartisanship that had fueled many of his first-term accomplishments, his audience Tuesday was far more antagonistic than the one he faced last year.

Democratic lawmakers are leading an investigation into the lane-closure controversy, which prompted Christie to fire a deputy chief of staff and sever ties with a top political adviser. Twin probes by both houses of the state Legislature are expected to be authorized Thursday, armed with broad subpoena powers and assistance from at least one special counsel.

“I am the governor, and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch — both good and bad,” Christie said in his opening. “Without a doubt, we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.”

Once his speech shifted to policy, he said New Jersey has made a lot of progress since he took office four years ago. “The state of the state is good, and getting better,” he said.

Governors traditionally use the State of the State speeches to set a tone and announce large policy initiatives – two years ago, the governor proposed an income tax cut, a subject that went unaddressed in this speech.

This year, Christie called for extending the school day and expanding the school year, though he offered few details about logistics or how the initiative would be funded.

He also announced a new $500,000 grant program to help substance abusers participating in the state’s mandatory treatment programs get jobs. Christie said he has also created a new unit, through executive order, to prosecute pension fraud, specifically cases where public employees faked disabilities.

He closed his speech by reviewing his list of what he called “exciting opportunities for investment in our state”: education improvements, crime prevention, assistance for substance abusers and a lower tax burden.

But he added a sobering footnote: “We cannot afford to do it right now. Why? Because of our pension and debt-service costs.”

Christie said that built-in increases in the state’s annual debt bill and its obligations to the public employee pension system would account for an extra $1 billion chunk of the next state budget, no small amount for a state that spends roughly $33 billion annually.

“If we do not choose to reduce our soaring pension and debt-service costs, we will miss the opportunity to improve the lives of every New Jersey citizen, not just a select few,” he said.

Afterward, Democrats — in some of their strongest reactions to the speech — took the governor’s words as a signal that he may not comply with a 2011 agreement to increase annual payments into the state’s underfunded pension system in return for having employees pay more for their pension benefits.

“The pension payment is an obligation to the hundreds of thousands of people who work here,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “[Christie] agreed to it.”

When asked after the speech if Christie is still committed to making the agreed-upon pension payment, spokesman Colin Reed said only that “the Democrats are reading too much into this.

“The governor means exactly what he said: We need to have a conversation about changes to our pension system so that we can afford the priorities we all agree are important,” Reed said.

And Reed did not respond when asked if Christie was signaling that he wants another round of cuts in public employee pension benefits.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, said the governor and lawmakers need to have an “honest conversation” about his proposals.

“It sounds like, from the tenor from his speech, that he doesn’t plan to come up with those payments,” she said. “The public employees have always paid their portion of the pension. The pension system got into this terrible way because it was the public entities that weren’t paying their portion.”

At least one union leader wondered whether Christie was hinting at additional cuts in benefits.

“The state must understand its need to live up to its obligations and not require workers to shoulder the burden of returning to solvency by themselves,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO.

State Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Cedar Grove, said Christie deserves credit for getting the state back into the habit of making pension payments.

“This governor has single-handedly put more money in, in the last four years, than the last three governors collectively,” he said.

But when asked about the escalating payment into the pension system, O’Toole said: “I think we need to have a dialogue.”

Republicans, meanwhile, focused on Christie’s tax-cutting proposals – like changing civil service rules to make it easier for municipalities to share services or consolidate. The governor said the consolidation of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, for example, generated $3 million in savings in one year.

“New Jersey is becoming a very, very expensive place to live, and one of the big reasons for that is we have a problem of very high costs — and taxes are a big piece of those high costs,” Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest, said. “And taxes affect just about everything.”

State House Bureau reporters Michael Linhorst and Michael Phillis contributed to this report. Email: hayes@northjersey.com and reitmeyer@northjersey.com

- See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/Governor_Christie_delivers_State_of_the_State_-_watch_live_video.html?page=all#sthash.X75x8EpT.dpuf




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