New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held his fifteenth Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, May 3, at the community center within the ballroom at Covered Bridge Condominium. Christie spoke to roughly 400 New Jersey residents about his current reform agenda and where it stands with the state legislature.
Christie spoke for about 45 minutes, discussing the civil service system, sick day pay, health benefit reform, pension reform, ethics reform and education reform.
Christie commented that there are only 58 days left for the “do-nothing legislature to act”.
“When I say that they’re a do-nothing legislature, I say it because the democrats who control the legislature promised you, promised me, to do a lot of things,” Christie said. “And I’ve got republican members of the legislature who are ready to act and ready to bring reforms that you know our state needs, but we’ve got to get everybody working on the same page together.”
Property Tax Tool Kit
“If we’re going to get property taxes under control, we have to give the mayors the tools to be able to control your property taxes," Christie said. To date, the state legislature has passed five of the 20 different bills put forth by the governor to control property taxes.
One of the five bills passed is the 2 percent cap on property taxes. Now, if a school district or town wants to raise property taxes above the 2 percent cap, the issue must be voted on instead of gaining approval from Trenton.
“The ten years before I became governor the property taxes were up 70 percent,” Christie said.
During budget elections last week, only 14 municipalities, out of the state's 566, put a ballot measure on their budget to raise property taxes above 2 percent, and 12 of them were defeated by voters.
"I didn’t take a position on whether people should vote yes or no on that--it’s up to you," Christie said. "In your particular town maybe you thought for that project that they want to do, we should raise taxes a little higher this year because it’s important to the town. But instead of other people deciding how to spend your money, you get to decide. They passed that.”
Civil Service System
Christie said that the state legislature had not passed the proposed bill amending the civil service system. The civil service system hires, evaluates and fires public sector workers. The system protects the employees from biased hiring or firing. Title 4A of the NJ Administrative Code defines the purpose of the system as a means to "establish a personnel system that provides a fair balance between managerial needs and employee protection for the effective delivery of public services."
Christie explained how the civil service system, initially, was a good idea. However, the governor said that since the advent of labor unions the civil service system has just become another layer of government that serves no purpose and makes “our government more complicated and more expensive”.
“[The civil service system] doesn’t allow mayors and council people to manage their town and business. It was something we had in place before labor unions,” Christie said.
Christie said he had no problem collectively bargaining with labor unions, as that is part of the government’s job. However, his reform involves the elimination of the civil service system and guiding local mayors on how to manage their towns with a tool kit.
“Because a lot of those labor unions would like to have as many handcuffs on mayors as they can, they are putting the pressure on the legislature not to pass civil service reform, and it hasn’t gotten done,” Christie explained.
Sick Pay Abuse
The governor said that he believes paying workers for sick days is fair.
What is not fair, Christie said, is the accumulation of sick day pay by public sector workers.
“And then what do we do?" Christie asked. "When they go to retire we say, ‘Congratulations for not being sick, and let me pay you for it.’ ”
Eight municipalities in New Jersey paid out $39 million dollars in sick pay in the past year. This money, Christie explained, comes out of property taxes. “ In Jersey City this year [citizens] paid an additional $245 in property taxes just to pay for sick leave pay outs. And, in Parsippany, 4 police officers retired and got $900,000 in sick leave.”
Christie said that he has a problem with giving these workers “a second tax-payer funded retirement gift when they are already getting a tax-payer funded pension.”
Christie’s sick day reform eliminates payment for sick days. The sick day reform is a part of the governors tool kit and the state legislature has not passed it.
Health Benefit Reform
The governor's health benefit reform, which was proposed in Sept. 2010, requires public sector employees to pay a percentage of the premium that they are charged for their health insurance.
When Christie came into office public employees did not pay for health insurance. Last year, the governor passed the first set of health benefit reforms requiring at least 1.5 percent of salary go toward health insurance.
The problem with this reform, according to the governor, is that there is no correlation between the increase and cost of salary and the increase and cost of health benefits. Therefore, the 1.5 percent has no relationship with how much the insurance costs, causing the tax payers to continue carrying much of the burden, as health insurance costs rise and salaries do not.
New Jersey's health benefit system has a $67 billion deficit because “right now we have a system that allows everybody to pick the most expensive, ‘cadillac’ plan there is because they don’t pay for it -- you do,” Christie said.
Within the first year state tax payers would save approximately $325 million, if Christie's health benefit reform is implemented. Applied to all municipalities state-wide, over $1 billion would be saved, according to the governor.
The governor informed citizens that negotiations are occurring in regard to health benefit reform, but no action has been taken.
Christie said that all public sector workers who are depending on their pension should receive their pension.
“They have planned their entire lives around receiving this pension and it would be unfair of us to have that pension go away. But it’s going away if we don’t change, because the pension fund is $54 billion in debt and if we make no changes between now and the next 30 years, it will go to $183 billion in debt," Christie explained. "Now, really that’s kind of a fake number because by the time we get there there will be no pension. We will not have the money to pay out pensions and so we will have to stop paying them.”
Christie proposed four regulations to get the expanding pension deficit under control: raising the retirement age to 65, eliminating cost of living adjustments on pensions, having public sector workers pay 8.5 percent into their pensions, and eliminate the 9 percent increase in pension payments implemented in 2001.
Currently, New Jersey police officers and fire fighters pay 8.5 percent into their pension, but teachers only pay 5.5 percent and judges only pay 3 percent, according to Christie, which is below the national average.
If these four changes are applied, the pension deficit would be reduced from $54 billion to $28 billion within the next 30 years, Christie said.
Within the next ten years, Manalapan Township would save $8.3 million dollars in pension payments if Christie’s pension reform is put into effect, according to the governor.
“Now I know it’d be hard for you all to believe that here, in the great state of New Jersey, we would ever need ethics reform for government,” Christie joked. “Call me hard and cynical given what my last job was -- a federal prosecutor who put 135 politicians, republicans and democrats, in jail.”
Christie presented the state legislature with a package of bills with the intent of making the ethics system clearer and making the legislature more accountable of outside income. None of the bills within the package were given a hearing, Christie said.
In terms of shadow government reform, Christie’s suggested legislation calls for closer watch on shadow government (boards, authorities, and commissions within the state government) which spend billions of dollars; the governor currently has veto privileges over only seven authorities.
Christie referenced the recent Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission firings and reorganizing of funds as an example of the unnecessary money being spent by the state government. Board members of the PVSC were forced to resign due to nepotism and overspending for their own benefit, Christie said. An additional 100 unnecessary employees were fired from the PVSC, saving the state $10.4 million.
“Here is the simple principle upon which all of my education reforms are based: Everyone in the system should be judged by how our students achieve. There should be accountability in the system so that children who are not achieving are given the help to achieve. There should be, in the teaching profession, rewards for excellence and consequences for failure,” said Christie.
With 150,000 teachers working in the public school system, only 17 have lost their tenure or been fired due to incompetence over the past ten years, according to Christie.
"Do we really believe there are only 17 ineffective techers in New Jersey within the last ten years?" Christie asked. "The tenure system has been morphed into a job guarantee. That after three years and one day you are guranteed a job for life, no matter how effective or ineffective you are in front of the classroom, and that’s wrong.”
Christie proposes a program which forces the teachers to re-earn their tenure. If after three years the teacher is judged to be effective, they earn tenure. If a teacher is scored as only partially effective for two years or ineffective for one year, that teacher would lose tenure and must earn it back by having another three years of efficacy.
"There are 104,000 kids in New Jersey today stuck in 200 chronically failing schools who have no choice but to stay in their chronically failing school and they continue to fall further and further down," Christie commented. "And for this privilege, we paid more last year for K-12 education than any state in America. Last year, we spent $25 billion on our K-12 education system."
Out of that $25 billion, $10 billion came from state aid and $15 billion came from property tax revenue. New Jersey pays more per pupil than any other state in the country, at an average cost of $17,000, Christie reported.
Another stumbling block in the governor's opinion is the way in which the funds are distributed among the districts. ABBOTT school districts, or school districts within poor communities with a fragile tax base, receive $16,100 per pupil in state aid, and the other districts receive $2,900 per pupil in state aid. Only 31 school districts out of 588 in New Jersey are ABBOTT, and 59 percent of the state aid goes towards ABBOTT districts; the other 557 school districts receive 41 percent of the state aid.
“Some of us, maybe, could put up with that if we were getting results for that money,” Christie said. “But an ABBOTT district like Asbury Park, where we spent $33,000 per pupil last year, and less than 50 percent of the children in Asbury Park can do math at an eighth grade proficiency.”
The state supreme court is on the edge of requiring the state legislature and the governor to spend another $1.7 billion next year on the school system. “You mean to tell me that when we spend $25 billion if we just spent $26.7 billion, it would all be better? I mean that’s crazy.”
The governor took questions from the audience after his speech. Stay tuned to Patch.com for video coverage on questions with the New Jersey governor!