Republican Gov. Chris Christie jumped head first into a fight with state political rivals over pensions despite highlighting his work with the Democratic-controlled Legislature and called for turning a prison into a drug treatment facility during his annual State of the State address Tuesday.
Christie told state lawmakers they have to keep working to get things done rather than pander to special interests, citing a vote Monday on a referendum that would require the state to make quarterly payments to its public workers pension fund.
The GOP presidential candidate said Democrats would have to raise taxes to live up to their proposal to make the payments, calling on those who voted for the change to raise their hands if they supported tax increases. No one did.
"Do we keep working to get things done and to move New Jersey forward?" Christie said. "Or are we going to pander to special interests and send New Jersey back to the bad old days?"
Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, argues that making quarterly payments helps ensure the full amount required under a 2011 law will be paid.
Christie, who has spent a majority of his time the past year out of the state running for president, focused almost all of his speech on issues in New Jersey, including calling for abolishing the state’s estate tax. He did take a brief shot at President Barack Obama, saying his State of the Union speech Tuesday night "isn’t a call to action, it’s a fantasy wish list by a president who failed us."
The president’s fellow Democrats called those comments "inappropriate."
Christie also proposed turning a recently closed state prison into a dedicated drug treatment facility for inmates and raising reimbursement rates for drug and mental health facilities.
The governor has made drug treatment a key initiative in his time as governor and on the presidential campaign trail. Treatment providers say low rates have led to long waiting lists for those seeking treatment and a struggle to hire and retain workers.
Christie worked with Democrats on pension reform in his first term, and on Monday he joined with Democratic leaders to announce a deal on a referendum on expanding casinos to northern New Jersey.
"A lot of people in this room have shown the courage to set aside partisan differences and achieve real progress," he said. "To all those who have chosen to reach out across the aisle, thank you. Thank you for everything you’ve done for our state."
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg noted that Christie didn’t talk about some of the biggest issues facing New Jersey, including a transportation fund that is set to run out of money this year.
"This speech to me didn’t even resemble a State of the State speech," Weinberg said. "He’ll be back on the campaign trail … but we will be here to figure out how we agree to meet the real and serious problems in the state of New Jersey."
The speech came as Christie’s campaign is gaining steam in the first-to-vote primary state of New Hampshire, where voters go to the polls Feb. 9. Christie has picked up key endorsements, risen in the polls and become the focus of sharp attacks from rival camps.
Experts say Christie’s presidential run means he won’t be around to advocate for any of the proposals he introduced.
"The lights are on. Tolls are being collected," said Rider University assistant political science professor Ben Dworkin. "Taxes are being paid, but the governor is quite literally phoning it in."
It’s an argument Christie has rebuked, saying he uses modern technology to do his job from the road.
Even so, Christie’s public schedule has him returning to New Hampshire on Wednesday morning for a town hall.
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