WESTFIELD, NJ – Governor Chris Christie’s talk of jobs, lower government spending and a possible 10 percent cut to income taxes across New Jersey had the crowd in cheers at Wednesday morning's town hall meeting in Westfield.
Christie addressed more than 600 area residents at the Westfield Armory, one of a series of town hall meetings the governor is doing across the state.
Most of Christie's talk focused on the state's economy, from school spending to government budget cuts, tax relief and the importance of making New Jersey business-friendlier to attract more new business and, in turn, create more jobs.
Christie said since being elected two years ago, he has gained the reputation for fiscal responsibility, or “the answer is always no,” as New York magazine wrote in an article about the then-new governor. He said when he first took office, the state couldn’t even make its own payroll.
“We simply said we have to stop spending,” he said. “And we did. We cut $2 billion in spending. It wasn’t easy and we had to make some hard decisions, but we did it. The previous administration always said yes. But now, the answer is always no.”
While Christie acknowledged that his hard-line stance on spending isn’t always popular, it has benefitted New Jersey overall, and has not caused the damage some feared it would, even in area such as state aid to public schools.
“None of the bad things they said would happen when we cut spending actually happened,” Christie said. “Test scores went up in all areas where funding was cut. I’m not saying that’s why, but there’s a saturation point in education funding. You don’t get better results by spending more.”
Christie cautioned the crowd against thinking his “the answer is always no” reputation means the state isn’t spending any money.
“We are spending,” he said. “But we’re spending on things we need to spend on. And we’re spending less than we were when I got into office a couple of years ago.”
In his upcoming budget address, Christie said he will propose a 10 percent income tax cut across the state.
“There are working poor in New Jersey who don’t make enough to pay income tax,” he said, referencing President Ronald Reagan’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides additional income to people below certain levels. Christie said he wants to raise the tax credit 20 percent.
“If you have a job and are working, you are going to get a tax cut,” he said, adding that the Democrats argue that the move is fiscally irresponsible.
“These are the guys who overspent and over-borrowed and over-taxed, and now they’re lecturing the guy who cut the budget two years ago about fiscal responsibility,” he said. “Last year, they wanted to spend a billion dollars we didn’t have, and called me heartless and bloodless and everything else when I cut it from the budget.”
Christie also said the Democrats criticize him for proposing a cut to income tax and say he should instead work on lowering the state’s property taxes.
“Two years ago, I said I was going to turn Trenton upside down,” he said. “Now the Democrats are arguing with me about which tax we should cut. They’re no longer arguing with me about whether we should cut taxes, they’re arguing about which taxes we should cut. We’ve won half the battle already.”
Christie said property taxes went up 70 percent in the 10 years before he became governor, and last year they went up only 1.7 percent.
The state also reduced costs by changing the health benefits available to government workers. State employees had been paying no money toward their benefits.
“All of you who don’t have a public sector job, if your employer offers health insurance, you pay a lot more than zero towards your coverage,” he said. Now the system has equalized, and state employees have 18 health plan options to choose from – up from three options – and the cost is based on a sliding scale.
Christie also called out the state’s Property Tax Rebate program, which started in 1977 under Governor Brendan Byrne. He said Byrne instituted the program as a way of getting re-elected.
“Interestingly, we got our checks in October, with his name all over them,” Christie said. “But we didn’t have the money to do that. We had to borrow the money to send out those checks. So we borrowed the money to send you the checks, then we paid interest on that money just so we could send it to you and remind you that we’re really good guys.”
Money from property taxes comes from income tax, Christie said, and many people don’t think about that.
“We’re taking money out of your right pocket, keeping most of it, then putting the rest into your left pocket and saying, ‘Aren’t we great?’” he said.
Rather than getting a check in the mail, taxpayers now get a credit on their property tax bill.
“Don’t send us the money at all and then we can’t spend it,” Christie said. “That’s the argument we’re going to have in Trenton in the next couple of months. I’m going to fight to cut income tax, and the Democrats are going to fight me, and I need you to stand with me on this.”
After his comments, Christie opened the floor to questions, but first cautioned people that they could disagree with him, and as long as they were respectful, he would be respectful in his response. But, he said, if the person holding the mic decided this would be their day to “take the governor of New Jersey out for a walk,” he said, “Remember we’re all from New Jersey. If you give it, you’re getting it right back.”
Questions from the audience ranged from veterans rights, a pending bill on fluoride in the drinking water, residential care facilities and bullying.
The question of bullying was raised by Jill Brown of Westfield, who told the governor she’s sorry for all the cyber-bullying he has been subjected to on various social media sites and news sites that include comments from the public. She urged him to consider funding for the state’s anti-bullying law, which last month was ruled unconstitutional because the state does not provide funding for it.
Christie told the Westfield crowd he will not let the bill die for a lack of funding.
“If it takes more funding, we will do that,” he said. “That wouldn’t be my first choice, but I’m not going to let this law go down.”
A member of the United Steel Workers Local 22 said that while Christie’s plan to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit is fine for people who are employed, many in his union have lost their jobs.
“Without a job, income tax doesn’t mean doodly squat,” the man said.
After commending the steel worker for using an expression he would use himself, Christie said the best way to get jobs back is by bringing businesses to New Jersey, and the best way to make New Jersey new business-friendly is by lowering taxes.