By Brandon Greife, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Ask a random 20-something what they first think of when you say New Jersey and you’re likely to get an unflattering picture of the state. MTV’s Jersey Shore would likely be first on the word-association list, followed by The Sopranos and possibly The Real Housewives. Taking these caricatures as reality, the Garden State appears to be filled with spiky-haired, spray tanned, mafia bosses with over-pampered, drama-queen wives. Unsurprisingly, New Jersey has become the butt of the joke. But recently elected governor Chris Christie is putting the state back on the road to respectability. OK, well maybe he can’t solve their image problem, but he’s certainly getting their fiscal house in order. He’s also providing a key roadmap for 2010 Republican candidates at a time when budget deficits and public debt is on the forefront of voters’ minds.
Christie knew what he was walking into when he won the governor’s race over Democrat John Corzine. In his budget address Christie listed many of the dubious distinctions his state holds:
New Jersey residents are the most over-taxed in the country. We have one of the highest top marginal income tax rates, the second highest sales tax rate, the sixth highest corporate tax rate, and the highest property taxes in the nation. … We are first in the number of college students who, once educated, leave our state. We are near the top in debt, and number one in getting the least back from Washington for every dollar we pay in taxes.
The state’s tax burden was still not enough to cover the government’s addiction to spending. Christie inherited a $10.7 billion budget deficit relative to a $29.3 billion budget. Rather than dance around the issue or kowtow to powerful unions, Christie dove in headfirst. In February he declared a fiscal "state of emergency" and signed an executive order that froze spending. In eight weeks he cut $13 billion in spending. For those of you counting at home, that is $1.6 billion per week, $232 million a day, and $9 million every hour.
Christie’s path has not been easy. Though a balanced budget sounds good in the abstract, the people finding their job or benefit packages on the chopping block take a much different view of things. This is the reason states and nations fall into debt. Politicians tout their fiscal responsibility right up until the point an interest group threatens to campaign against them in the next election.
With this past as a guide one would have expected Christie to fold when confronted with the powerful state teachers’ union. His budget proposal called for $820 million in cuts to school districts. The public cried foul. Christie then pointed out that those cuts could largely be paid for if teachers agreed to a one-year salary freeze and begin contributing 1.5 percent of their salary to health benefits. The public came around but the teachers’ union came unhinged.
This was a group that no politician messed with. 203,000 members strong; $107 million a year in revenues; $7 million a year in advertising and public relations; $1 million a year in campaign donations. Kudos to Christie for not backing down. Moreover, there is no reason he should have. As a recent editorial for the New Jersey Star Ledger explained:
Salaries for our teachers are always at the top of the nation, or close to it. And most pay nothing for red-carpet health benefits for life.
This year, in the middle of a punishing recession--when more than 10 percent of New Jerseyans are out of work, when others are having their pay and hours cut, when many are losing homes to foreclosure--teachers’ average base salaries rose by nearly 5 percent, double the rate of inflation.
In less than six months Christie has lowered the state’s budget gap, accomplished the task without raising taxes, and fought off special interests. In a state filled with big personalities (here’s looking at you Snookie), Christie has managed to stand out. His bold vision should be should now be emulated. The United States’ debt and deficit is as unsustainable as New Jersey’s. It will also be one of the largest issues driving voters to the polls. Unfortunately, Republicans lost the mantle of fiscal responsibility during the Bush presidency. But Democrats have given the GOP another chance. As Paul Ryan recently said, “yea Republicans, we were amateur big spenders, now we’ve got the professionals running the place.”
Now, more than ever, the public is looking for professional deficit cutters. Chris Christie has shown that Republicans are capable of earning that label.