Gov: End teacher tenure; cut spending
State of the State address today pledges to tackle pension system, teacher contracts, spending and property taxes
Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday called for terminating teacher tenure, reforming the state pension and benefit systems and cutting spending.
In his State of the State address, the governor outlined the state's fiscal problems and long-term debt that he plans to address not through tax increases but through decreased spending.
“We have to continue to make some very tough decisions about what we can afford — and what we can’t,” he said.
In education, Christie said, the state must cut out-of-classroom costs and focus more on teacher-and-student performance.
He said layoffs should be merit-based, noting that teaching "can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure to perform."
"Let New Jersey lead the way again," he said. "The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now."
He called for “shared sacrifice” and for government to find the courage to fund only the things that it really needs, and to opt to cut popular programs in order to save necessary ones.
Among the issues: fixing the state pension system, grappling with debt and keeping expenses in check.
Gov. Christie is expected to present his proposed 2012 fiscal year budget next month, and he hinted that a comprehensive tax reform package will be part of that budget.
“I am not proposing to cut spending just for cutting’s sake,” he said. “I am asking for shared sacrifice so that when we leave here, New Jersey will be more fiscally sound than when we got here. I am asking for shared sacrifice in cutting what we don’t need so that we can invest in what we absolutely do need.”
He took a moment to praise what he said was the hard work already accomplished in the previous fiscal year, such as 2 percent increase caps on property taxes and arbitration, calling them the first steps of change. He said that now, as a result of making hard choices, “in one year New Jersey has gone from being a basket case to being a national model.”
“We are showing other states that sometimes, to create real change, you’ve got to go all in and show a little Jersey attitude,” Christie said.
Without going into specifics, the governor’s address tackled three issues at the forefront of his agenda this year.
- Creating a balanced budget and tackling long-term debt. “We must stick to the course of fiscal discipline.”
- Employee benefits. “We must fix our pension and health benefit systems in order to save them."
- School performance. “We must reform our schools to make them the best in the nation."
The state’s education system needs to improve, Christie said, calling education reform “the biggest thing of all for the future of our state.”
Throughout his term, Gov. Christie has taken aim at teacher’s unions and education reform, and in his address today, he continued this emphasis, denouncing teacher contracts based on seniority.
“I propose that we reward the best teachers, based on merit, at the individual teacher level,” Christie said. “I demand that layoffs, when they occur, be based on a merit system and not merely on seniority.”
In Toms River, officials said they were listening intently to the state of the state address but that the hard figures found in the proposed state budget next month will better help formulate the township budget. In the meantime, the township council approved its temporary budget for 2011 at its reorganization meeting last week.
Township Administrator Paul Shives said the township’s budget is reliant in part on the amount of aid the state awards Toms River.
“We’ve got to wait for the state to decide on the aid figures,” Shives said, “before we can create a budget of our own.”
The last budget decreased state aid to Toms River, to the tune of $2.5 million.
Township council members agreed with the governor’s assessment that the year ahead would be faced with financial challenges. Making tough choices is not new to the township, officials said, citing that in last year’s municipal budget, Toms River used furlough days as an option to balance the budget.
In December, the township council agreed that open space funds could be used for the maintenance of open space properties, not just the acquisition of them. The council pointed to the move as a legitimate, less painful measure to fund expenditures within the parks and recreation department.
“The 2011 budget will have to take into account the depressed real estate, state aid levels, and 2 percent budget cap,” said Councilman George Wittman.
Councilwoman Melanie Donohue-Appleby said the financial picture at the municipal level is one of “dire straits.”
“Health care costs, pension costs are skyrocketing, and we have to find a way to deal with them,” she said.
In the last budget, Toms River’s contribution to the state pension plans grew by $560,00, and employee group health insurance costs grew by $1.2 million. On top of that, decreased property values created over $450 million in tax appeals.
At the county level, the governor’s 2 percent cap on arbitration interest led the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders to seek relief for contracts already with 4 percent increase. It was a reform the governor praised in his speech today, and promised more was necessary.
The governor admitted many of his solutions would be unpopular and tough, but he said they are still necessary.
“I was determined when I took the oath of this office to give the people an honest assessment of our problems; to tell them the truth, even if it was difficult and my proposed solutions were unpopular,” he said. “I may not offer the easiest course, but I will be direct in saying which course I believe to be the best.”