Yesterday I fell for an overweight married man from New Jersey. Don’t judge-- my new (unrequited) heartthrob is Governor Chris Christie, whom I heard speak at a Manhattan Institute event at the Plaza Hotel. Why this sudden infatuation? Because Christie is credible. He lands on the third rail about every sixth sentence, and makes no apologies. I’m not the only one drawn in, needless to say. In New Jersey, where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, voters are backing Governor Christie even while he is doing the unthinkable – telling the truth about the mess his state is in, and trying to fix it. A poll by Fairleigh Dickinson released yesterday showed that 48% of non-public employee households approve of the job he is doing, while only 36% disapprove. Of course, not all New Jerseyans are excited about Christie’s message. Those residents whose livelihoods are threatened by the outspoken guv – who are on state or local payrolls -- are not so charitable. They disapprove of their state’s highest ranking official 58% to 33%. And there we have, folks, the divide that is growing across the country.
Christie’s talking points are powerful. New Jersey residents pay the highest property taxes in the country. State spending, had former Governor Corzine’s budget been instituted, would have increased 16% per year for the past twenty years. (Mr. Christie really should repeat that one.) When Christie arrived, he faced a stated budget deficit of $10.9 billion on a budget of $29.3 billion; the figures were even worse than they appeared since the prior administration overstated revenues. In the past ten years municipal spending increased 69%, while property taxes rose 70%. As Christie says, “At some point people’s ability to pay runs out,” which is why he recently vetoed a “millionaire’s tax” within minutes of its passage in the state legislature.
That is also why he is proposing a 2.5% annual cap on property tax increases and on municipal spending going forward; if legislators want to impose a heftier rise, they will have to get approval from the voters. And, that is also why he is going after public employee unions, and most specifically the teachers’ union. New Jersey is not the only state that has given away its future to pay generous pensions and benefits for its public service employees, but it is one of the first to challenge those contracts. Christie makes clear that it is not teachers who are the focus of his ire; it is their union. He has asked the union to accept a one-year pay freeze – not a cut – and to shoulder 1.5% of the cost of their very generous health benefits. Teachers in New Jersey get full medical, dental and vision care for themselves and their families at no expense. By contrast, as Christie points out, federal employees pay 25% of such costs. This discrepancy is not only fiscally irresponsible – it’s bad policy. People who have zero “skin in the health care game” behave differently, spend more loosely, than those who do not. This seems like a rational change to impose on these workers. The response from the unions, naturally, was to stage one of the biggest protest rallies ever held in the state’s capital of Trenton.
Christie pointed out that just last weekend, as 35,000 people gathered to shout down his proposals, he did more to boost the economy of Trenton than any of his predecessors. -- No one ventures into downtown Trenton on an average Saturday; doubtless local business owners were thrilled. Another reason for my infatuation: Christie has a sense of humor. How refreshing! I am so tired of politicians that preach and whine (naming no names) – Christie makes me laugh. The country needs some humor right now; things look pretty darn bleak.
On a more substantial note, Christie favors another important initiative that gets little notice. He wants to push government down closer to its roots. He favors decisions being made at the municipal level, as opposed to the state level, which would allow for cuts to the state’s administrative overhead. Interestingly, this resembles a policy outlined yesterday by U.K.’s new coalition leaders David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Embedded in their new program is the “interest in devolving power over public services” as The Financial Times reported. They quoted Clegg describing their intention to “give people more power over public services….more control over their schools, over their hospitals, over their police, over their politicians.”
This approach is appealing, even though its adoption by a European country might give some in the U.S. pause, given the financial cloud hanging over that part of the world. Christie, though, has done a good job distinguishing between the ideas we wish to import and those we do not. “If we allow a minority group of union leaders to define our future, we will be Greece.” The only disappointment of the day? Christie vows he doesn’t care about a second term.
Liz Peek is a financial, political and social commentator. For more visit LizPeek.com.
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