CALDWELL, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended his new $32.5 billion state budget on national TV and at a local town hall meeting on Tuesday, proudly touting his vetoes of Democratic tax hikes and railing against public employee benefits he says threaten to bankrupt the state.
Presenting himself as a no-nonsense, fiscal conservative as he continues working to repair his brand ahead of a potential presidential run, Christie slammed state Democratic lawmakers for trying to push through what he described as "crazy things," like temporarily raising income taxes on those earning more than $1 million a year to fill an unexpected budget hole.
Instead, Christie — who has pledged not to raise taxes as governor — used his line-item veto power to eliminate the tax hikes, choosing to delay contributions to the public employees' pension fund to fill the gap, which his administration estimated at $2.75 billion over the current and previous fiscal year. The contributions had been part of a 2011 deal forged in exchange for higher pension and health care contributions.
Christie began the day with an early morning appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Box," where he made clear that he intends to spend the coming months hammering the need for more drastic pension cutbacks and health care savings.
"What you're going to see me do all summer is to be out across the state of New Jersey making the argument that we need to fix this system or it will eat us alive," he said. "We need to speak in stark, plain, understandable terms to people."
Christie doubled down on the message at the town hall gathering, telling those at a local community center that health benefit costs for public workers are "completely out of control." He warned the state "is heading towards catastrophe" and could be driven to bankruptcy if entitlement spending isn't reined in.
Christie is expected to present a formal plan this summer, but promised that it would elicit jeers.
"Whenever it's released, it will be universally criticized. And the reason it will is because it will inflict pain," he said, "because there is no other way to fix a severe problem like this but with pain."
The television appearance was just the latest for Christie, who has been on a media blitz as he tries to move past the George Washington bridge scandal, with an appearance dancing on Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight Show" and trips across the country as part of his role as chair of the Republican Governors Association.
The budget also marks one of the governor's last major chances to burnish his conservative credentials in a crowded field of candidates as he contemplates his 2016 plans.
While slashing pension payments may not be popular at home in deep blue New Jersey, observers say the kind of tax-slashing, cost-cutting, anti-union rhetoric is exactly what many Republican donors and party officials are looking for.
"This gives him an opportunity to make a splash with conservatives by proposing some radical change in the pension system here," said Patrick Murray, the director of New Jersey's Monmouth University Polling Institute. "The more radical it is the more clear it is he's doing it to appeal to conservative voters," he said.
Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, said that grassroots Republicans are looking for a reformer who has taken on budget and spending issues.
"What he really needs and I think what helps him is if he can make a credible argument that he's taken on wasteful spending, that he's looked to develop a budget program that delivers economic growth and puts New Jersey back on the right track," said Madden. "One of Christie's best arguments is that he's taken on an entrenched Democratic establishment and years of budget neglect that was the result of Democratic administrations not making tough choices."
Chris Chocola, president of Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, agreed conservatives are eager for a candidate who's willing to stand up and offer conservative solutions to economic problems, but is waiting to see whether Christie follows through with his bluster.
"He's got a lot of rhetoric. A lot of it's good. But I think we have to take a detailed look at the actual record of the state of New Jersey and his economic policies and what they've done," he said. "I think he better make sure that the rhetoric matches the record because we won't be the only ones looking if he runs."