The Record- An angry Governor Christie, who often boasts of his bipartisan accomplishments while campaigning for president, admonished New Jersey business leaders Tuesday for “playing footsie” with Democrats he says want to pick the pockets of taxpayers through tax increases, and for allowing Republicans to lose seats in last month’s Assembly election.
Christie used forceful and sometimes dramatic language to challenge those leaders at the annual New Jersey Business and Industry Association’s public policy forum in East Windsor to “get a spine” and fight against “crazy and liberal” Democrats with policies that stifle business and job growth.
He framed the future of the state as a battle between pro-business Republicans who want to hold down spending and money-hungry Democrats who are beholden to unions.
“You’re either going to fight this fight or you’re going to cave. And if you cave, this is going to become a poorer, less prosperous, less happy, less innovative state. And the shame that we’re going to know is that we were here to preside over its death,” Christie said.
It was Christie’s first policy-related speech in New Jersey since September. And like his announcement the day before Thanksgiving of a pardon for a rehabilitated drug addict, Tuesday’s event seemed intended to reach an audience beyond the Garden State. But unlike his presidential stump speeches that offer a picture of him as a firm but pragmatic leader who says “compromise is not capitulation,” Christie on Tuesday likened his existence as the state’s chief executive to standing in front of a tank driven by “pigs” in the Legislature with narrow interests and spendthrift proposals.
“We’re six years and 430 vetoes into this governorship, and yet I still keep getting sent job-killing tax increases, job-killing regulatory increases and other types of legislation that is just making the business environment — if it were enacted — would make the business environment even worse and worse. You see, we’re in the thick of this fight every day,” Christie said. “I think it’s hard for people around the country to truly understand what it’s like to be a pro-growth, pro-business Republican in a state like this, where every day you have the next idiotic idea coming out of the majority of this Legislature.”
The latest idea that fits Christie’s billing came Monday, when Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, moved to constitutionally mandate that the state make its annual public employee pension contribution quarterly. In his first term, Christie worked with Sweeney to reform the state’s pension system, including legislation requiring that the state annually increase its payments into the fund, but he has slashed the last three contributions and vetoed legislation earlier this year to make quarterly payments.
Sweeney is anticipated to run for governor in 2017. Christie said Sweeney and other Democrats in the Legislature are catering to the interests of unions, who, largely through super PACs, heavily and disproportionately financed advertising and campaigns against Republicans last month. In the election, Democrats won four additional seats in the Assembly, bringing its majority to 52 seats, the most in four decades. Unions, Christie said, “bought and paid for this Legislature, and now comes the payoff.”
Sweeney said the suggestion that his proposal was meant to pander to unions “couldn’t be further from reality.”
“Four years ago, [the bill], which I sponsored along with Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., would have amended the constitution to require pension payments,” he said. “It passed the Senate with overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans. While it didn’t become law, it was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea now.
“Had it become law in 2011, the fiscal damage done to the pension system from the missed payments wouldn’t be nearly as severe,” Sweeney said.
Christie urged business leaders to begin fighting back with money.
“Force must meet force. That’s it. That’s what politics is, everybody, especially in this state,” he said.
Democratic candidates spent 2.5 times more than Republican candidates in last month’s election, and “virtually all” of the $10.7 million spent by independent groups benefited Democrats, said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Christie has said he attended half a dozen candidate fundraisers, but the state Republican committee has also spent at least a quarter-million dollars this year for his travel and legal fees related to the George Washington Bridge scandal, according to commission records.
Christie was especially forceful in his criticism of business leaders who have entertained Democrats’ ideas. He did not cite specific proposals, but Democrats have regularly said they view a gas tax increase as necessary to support the nearly depleted Transportation Trust Fund. Christie has also said he’s open to raising the tax, among the lowest in the nation, but only if it represents “tax fairness,” meaning another tax must be reduced or eliminated.
The business association’s president, Michele Siekerka, said the organization supports transportation investment and is open to any plan that does so responsibly. And the state Chamber of Commerce said it would support an increase in the gas tax if the money is dedicated to the fund and protected from being diverted for other purposes.
The governor laid blame on the business community for not putting the money and resources into an effort to educate the public about the adverse impact of putting a Democratic proposal on the ballot to amend the constitution to increase the minimum wage. Christie called it an “embarrassment.”
“Every one of you in this room, you let it happen. You did nothing to stop it,” he said.
Christie said he feels that sometimes his leadership and that of Kean and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the Republican leaders in the Legislature, are taken for granted, and “that some elements of the business community can play footsie with the Democrats and say, ‘Yeah, but don’t worry about it, because we know the governor will be there to veto it, and Kean and Bramnick will be there to sustain the vetoes, so we get the best of both worlds.’”
He went on, “We can play kissy-face with the Democrats and we don’t have to worry about the ramifications of those policies because they’ll never come into effect because Christie and Kean and Bramnick will be the adults in the room to stop the state from going down this inevitably awful path,” Christie said. “That’s not always going to be a given if you don’t fight for it.”
Chamber President Tom Bracken said he agreed with Christie’s message, but “I’m not sure who he’s talking about. We have been a very strong proponent of the Christie pro-business administration.”
Siekerka said after the speech that Christie’s criticisms were “spot-on,” and she called the speech a “rallying cry” for the business community. But she also allowed that parts of the speech were more like a lecture.
“We’re all adults and we can handle it,” she said. “And, you know what, if somebody doesn’t give us the reality check in a while, shame on us.”