New Jersey Gov.-elect Chris Christie made it clear Wednesday that he'll seek new concessions from state workers as he grapples with a projected budget deficit of $8 billion entering his first year in office.
This would mean going back to a well that Gov. John Corzine tapped earlier this year, potentially setting up another round of tense negotiations with union leaders.
Speaking after a Veteran's Day event in Holmdel, Christie said he expects shared sacrifice from the state work force of about 75,000.
He said he's leaving all his options open for the dismal fiscal year ahead, including trimming the state's contribution to the workers' pension fund and asking for additional givebacks from labor.
Late last year Corzine reopened the workers' contracts after state revenues plunged and New Jersey's budget deficit ballooned.
Under a renegotiated deal finalized early this year, the unions put off the 3.5 percent pay raise they were due on July 1 for 18 months and took unpaid furlough days in exchange a no-layoff -pledge through December 2010.
Christie, who accused Gov. Jon Corzine of being too cozy with labor throughout the gubernatorial campaign, said he wasn't trying to pick a fight with the unions. He said he hoped to avoid layoffs, but would not be bound by Corzine's pledge.
"We're going to have to have a negotiation with state employees regarding how we're going to move forward with the benefits and pay that they get," Christie said. "Given the state of our economy in New Jersey, I don't think anything should be taken off the table."
Under the current contract, union workers are due a 3.5 percent raise next July 1, and the 3.5 percent that was deferred on Jan. 1, 2011. Deferring the raise saved the state about $189 million in the current budget year.
Bob Master, political director of the state's largest labor union, the Communications Workers of America, said the renegotiated contract stipulates that the deferred 3.5 percent raise would kick in if there are layoffs.
"We think it's very positive that he is saying quite clearly that he wants to avoid layoffs," Master said. "He needs to understand that our members have been sacrificing ... and they are middle-class people struggling to get by as well."
Christie's options for balancing the budget in the coming year are limited because he has promised not to increase taxes or cut K-12 school aid. He takes office in January, and must introduce a budget in March for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
On Tuesday, Jeff Chiesa, the head of Christie's transition team, said the incoming governor would consider declaring a statewide financial emergency, which could give him power to reopen negotiations with state worker unions before their contract expires in June 2011.
On Wednesday, Christie stopped short of saying he was sending a signal to the unions or looking to void the workers' contracts. He reiterated that he would not be a pushover, either.
"The people of New Jersey know that we're in the middle of a really difficult times and they know we're gonna have to make tough choices," Christie said. "That's what they sent me here for. They didn't send me here to play easy and nice. And that's not what they're gonna get with me."