For New Jersey governor Chris Christie, 2010 was a big first year. He closed not one but two multi-billion-dollar budget holes without raising taxes; he defied his state’s federal legislators and the Obama administration by canceling the ARC tunnel, a bloated transit project he says would have left New Jersey taxpayers on the hook for billions in cost overruns; and he won a game of chicken with teachers’ unions on education spending, driving a wedge between Trenton Democrats and what is perhaps their most powerful constituency while laying the groundwork for fundamental reforms across the public sector.
Now, in 2011, what Christie calls “The New Jersey Model” — it could just as accurately be called “the Christie Model” — has gone national, as Republican and Democratic governors alike are finally catching up with Christie, coming around to the necessity of tackling the flawed public-employee-compensation systems and federal mandates that are beggaring their states. And the governor himself is subject to constant presidential talk: first whispers, then shouts, and finally pleas that he stand against Barack Obama in 2012.
“In ’09, I think we were in some respects surprised we won. So the idea that a year and a quarter later we’d have all this national attention is nothing we expected,” Christie tells National Review Online. “But I also understand it, because we’re saying what needs to be said, and now you’ve got a whole bunch of other states doing the same things. I feel gratified about that, but I try not to let it distract me.”
So what will Chris Christie do with his moment? For the umpteenth time, he doesn’t have his eye on the White House. “I see the opportunity, both at the primary and general-election level,” he says of 2012, but adds candidly: “I have to think I’m ready to be president. If you just make that decision based on seeing an opportunity, then you’ll have a president who isn’t ready.”
Instead, Christie is looking to consolidate and expand on his victories in Trenton, proposing an ambitious new budget that would shrink government and lower New Jersey’s tax burden, rein in Medicaid’s malignant growth, shake up the state’s overspending and underperforming education system, and consummate public-sector-pension and -benefit reforms.
Christie expects the biggest fight on the latter. Working alongside the Democratic Senate president (himself a private-sector union rep), Christie proposes increasing employee contributions to both health-care premiums and pension funds, raising the retirement age, eliminating automatic cost-of-living increases, and rolling back a promised but non-fungible benefit increase. But he stops short of taking on the right of public workers to collectively bargain at all.
Like those in Wisconsin, Christie says, his state’s public employees at all levels currently enjoy collective-bargaining rights. “All the different benefits you hear Governor Walker talking about in Wisconsin, they have. All the different advantages they get are all well entrenched statutorily in New Jersey,” he says. But while he supports Walker’s attempt to scale back bargaining in Madison, he doesn’t think the same is possible — or necessary — in Trenton.
“I trust Walker. I know him. I campaigned for him. I think he’s experienced and bright and he’s tough. If he thinks that’s what needs to be done in Wisconsin, I support him. But I haven’t had a crack yet in New Jersey at trying to negotiate these deals. And I think before I try anything else I want to get a chance to do it.”