If there were any doubt Gov. Chris Christie would go on the offensive as he now turns to pitching a new state budget proposal, he put it to rest yesterday during a town hall-style event in Moorestown.
Christie, in his first town hall of the year and his first public appearance since Tuesday’s budget address, singled out the cost of public-employee benefits as the key problem that needs to be addressed to get New Jersey’s finances in order.
“We’ve got to fix the one problem that’s left,” Christie told a group of a few hundred gathered inside Moorestown’s recreation center.
But even as he was talking, the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association used social media to criticize Christie’s town halls, which are typically held during the afternoon and often in areas where the governor has broad support. Moorestown, for example, is controlled by Republicans and has a Republican mayor, Victoria Napolitano.
“We don't attend these events because they are better choreographed than some Broadway shows,” said Patrick Colligan, the president of the union.
The governor also took aim yesterday at lawmakers in Trenton who have talked about proposing new tax increases like a millionaires tax to help come up with more funding to pay for public-employee pensions. Their comments come in the wake of a court ruling issued Monday that ordered the state to find another $1.6 billion for the pension system in this fiscal year.
“Don’t worry, someone else is paying,” Christie said, mocking the tone of the lawmakers. “You know it’s a lie because if it doesn’t impact you directly, it impacts you indirectly.”
And Christie, a Republican exploring a run for president in 2016, also attempted to reframe the agreement he said he’d struck with the New Jersey Education Association on new healthcare and pension reforms while laying out on Tuesday his $33.8 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Though many listening to the budget speech thought he portrayed the teachers union as having signed on to a proposal to cut healthcare plans and to use the savings to pay off state pension-system debt, union leaders said later that they’d only agreed to a broad framework of goals to pursue.
Christie blamed the media yesterday for getting it wrong.
“I did not announce (Tuesday) that we have agreed to fix every element of the problem,” Christie said. “We have more work to do between now and June.”
But during a riff on New Jersey’s tax burden, including the state’s status as of one of only two in the country that levy both an estate and inheritance tax, it was Christie who seemed to get it wrong.
He said New Jersey taxes both estates and inheritances, citing as an example a grandparent having their estate taxed and also the grandchild having their inheritance taxed.
“We’re going to tax your grandchildren for having the temerity to accept the money from grandma and grandpa,” Christie told the crowd.
He was only partly right. Estates over $675,000 are taxed, but according to the state Division of Taxation’s description of New Jersey’s inheritance tax, several close relatives are generally exempt from the inheritance tax, including “a decedent's surviving spouse, parents, grandparents, children, stepchildren or grandchildren.”
A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment yesterday on Christie’s apparent mistake. Christie also stressed during the event, which lasted about 90 minutes, that the days of using non-recurring sources of revenue to balance the state budget are largely over.
“That’s honest budgeting,” he said, adding that gimmicks like former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s tobacco bonds were a thing of the past.
“We’re not doing that anymore,” Christie assured.
But last year, Christie used a series of one-shot measures to close a $1 billion budget gap, pushing off property-tax relief payments and reducing a $2.25 billion state contribution to the pension system to $697 million in the current fiscal year, a cut that drew the lawsuit from public employees that set the stage for Monday’s court ruling.
Funds dedicated for clean-energy and affordable housing have also been raided by Christie’s administration in recent years.
The one-time measures were recognized by major credit-rating agencies last year when they lowered New Jersey’s bond rating, including Moody’s, which knocked the state last May for “ongoing reliance on non-recurring resources that have deferred structural imbalances into future years.”
But it was Christie’s failure to talk during the event about Monday’s pension ruling and a looming funding crisis for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund that drew the most criticism from Assemblyman Troy Singleton, (D-Burlington) when reached for an interview after the event.
The pension ruling called on Christie and lawmakers to work together to find the funding to make the $2.25 billion pension contribution before the current fiscal year ends on June 30. This year’s budget only has $681 million allocated for this purpose. It also foreshadowed that the state will have to make a roughly $3 billion pension payment in the new fiscal year. But Christie has said his only plan right now is to appeal the court ruling, and his 2016 budget would allocate not the $3 billion, but $1.3 billion for the pension payment.
“Frankly, as a taxpayer, I’m floored,” said Singleton, whose district includes the town of Moorestown. “We have no plan articulated from the executive branch on how to address that.”
Singleton, who is a member of the Assembly’s Budget Committee, said he will press state Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff for more answers during budget hearings later this year.
And he said he’s also looking for more answers on how the state is going to pay for road, bridge, and rail improvements in the next fiscal year. The current source of revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund, the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax, will only raise enough money to pay off existing debt beginning July 1.
Sidamon-Eristoff said during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday that transportation projects would be funded in the new fiscal year with $600 million in borrowed money, much less than the $1.6 billion in state dollars New Jersey has been spending on transportation since former Gov. Jon Corzine was in office.
The lower funding level for transportation did not come up in Moorestown and was also not mentioned during his budget speech.
“That is troubling to me,” Singleton said.
But Christie was asked about the transportation funding issue -- which comes as New Jersey Transit is threatening its first fare hike since 2010 -- during his monthly radio show yesterday evening.
He said conversations with legislative leaders about a fix are ongoing.
“This is not something to rush on or push through,” Christie said. “It’s not a crisis at the moment.”