But he had no intention of mollycoddling the other side. On March 16, the governor went back before a joint session of the legislature and introduced a $29.3 billion budget that doubled down on his most controversial measures, trimming fat — and muscle, and sinew — from virtually every department and every entitlement in the state.
The budget did small things, like reducing overtime hours, shrinking the state’s fleet of official vehicles, replacing paper with digital filing, and consolidating government office space. It cut the pay and pension eligibility for members of a number of state boards and commissions, many of whose duties required them to do little more than attend once-monthly meetings. It saved $216 million by eliminating a number of wasteful programs, and another $50 million by privatizing others.
But the budget did big things as well. It shrank the state’s major spending programs — including many that were, the governor admitted, not without merit — by reducing base appropriations and either scaling back or eliminating scheduled funding increases. It converted the state’s property-tax rebate system — long funded by borrowing, at interest, to cut checks to homeowners — with tax credits. It cut $466 million in local aid, against Trenton’s trend of corralling more and more municipal tax dollars for the purposes of redistribution, while pushing a constitutional amendment that would limit towns’ ability to raise property taxes in the future.
And like Corzine before him, Christie deferred payments to the state’s pension program to secure $3.1 billion in savings, under the justification that it was imprudent to sink more money into a failing system. But unlike Corzine, Christie pushed through tough pension reforms that rolled back overgenerous payment increases, limited payouts for unused sick leave, and enrolled new workers into 401(k)s. He’d also signed a law requiring public employees to pay at least 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health benefits, which would save the state and local governments hundreds of millions each year.
But what caused the first and most strident wave of opposition to Christie’s agenda was his decision to slash funding for public education, by some $820 million.
That scary number obscured the fact that, when one subtracted the federal-stimulus goodie bag that Corzine had used to plug the leaky dam of the state’s school-funding formula the previous year, Christie’s budget was actually increasing aid to schools. And it obscured the fact that the cuts topped out at 5 percent per district, and that Christie had offered to restore them in districts where teachers accepted a one-year pay freeze and agreed to increase their contributions to their benefits packages from zero — zero — to 1.5 percent of their salaries.
Of the 591 school districts in the state, fewer than three dozen agreed to these conditions. Instead, the teachers’ unions, led by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), invested nearly $6 million to lobby against the budget, running radio and television ads accusing the governor of failing to “protect the quality of our schools” and, gob-smackingly, of going back to “the old Trenton ways of doing business.”
The campaign reached its peak, and its nadir, on May 22, at a march on Trenton organized by public-sector unions. There, NJEA president Barbara Keshishian led as many as 35,000 labor activists — a mere 7 percent of the 460,000 names on the books of the state’s pension system — in shouting down the governor and warning Democrats not to become his “accomplices.”
When a reporter asked Christie what he thought of the protest, he literally shrugged, saying that it had had “absolutely no effect” on him.
“[I hope they] had a good time,” Christie said. “And I hope that it helped spur Trenton’s economy.”