NJ governor suggests Washington follow NJ's lead

AP News
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Posted: Jun 24, 2011 5:06 PM
NJ governor suggests Washington follow NJ's lead

Republican Gov. Chris Christie started taking victory laps Friday, suggesting that Washington could learn a thing or two from New Jersey when it comes to bipartisan cooperation and curbing spending by raising health and pension contributions by public employees.

In interviews with major media outlets and on talk shows, Christie also said New Jersey will become a national model "hailed across the country ... something the president and the Congress can only aspire to."

Christie was able to fast-track the employee benefits legislation after striking a deal with the Democrats who control the Legislature even as unions held rallies to pressure leaders to kill it.

"It's a monumental accomplishment, it really is. Very few states have done anything this sweeping in one piece of legislation," Christie told the AP, calling underfunded pension and health care obligations "the core problems of government spending in the country."

Speaking with Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show Friday, Christie suggested the president more personally engage in budget talks with lawmakers. The Republican suggested the first thing Obama do about debt ceiling talks is "show up."

"You can't negotiate through a secondary person. And with all due respect to the Vice President, the President's got to show up," Christie said.

On Friday, Christie's office also released a new highlights video, titled "Can't Stop Now," touting the deal even though it technically needs one more vote and his signature, which are set for next week.

Christie is scheduled to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday to talk about the deal, which requires 500,000 teachers, police, firefighters and other public workers to pay a larger portion of their health insurance premiums based on income. It also increases their pension contributions.

The state's retirement funds are underfunded by $110 billion. Christie has estimated that the reform legislation will save the state about $130 billion over the next 30 years.

The legislation, which also restricts collective bargaining for four years, was fast-tracked after Christie and the Democratic leaders who control the Legislature reached a deal that Christie called his greatest accomplishment since taking office in 2010.

Christie was careful to credit Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver; they had far more political capital to lose with their Democratic base and traditional union backers. The legislation caused a deep fissure among Democrats who felt betrayed by a likely new law that cut the legs from union negotiations.

"When everybody in 2025 is still collecting their pensions, they should be looking for me and Steve and Sheila to say `Thank you.' Because this was not easy," Christie told the AP.

Local union leaders seemed mystified that Democrats would hand Christie such a victory, and nationally union leaders worried that other states may be inspired to end collective bargaining in much the same way.

"What happened in New Jersey was really a dark day for workers' rights because it's a continuation of the race to the bottom we're seeing in many other states," said national Communication Workers of America spokeswoman Candice Johnson.

The Assembly approved the bill 46-32, with mostly Republican support, on Thursday night following hours of emotional public speeches that came after often bitter closed-door debate among Democrats. Uniformed state troopers escorted several people from the gallery for disrupting the debate with cheers and jeers.

The legislation, which has also cleared the Senate, will need to go back there Monday for what is expected to be a quick vote because of one change made by the Assembly. Christie will then be able to sign the measure into law.

While Christie remains more popular than ever with national media and adored by Republicans, his poll numbers back home are less flattering. At a town hall event in North Jersey earlier in the week, he heard as much booing as applause and a handful of protesters who disrupted were escorted out by police.

A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed more people disapprove than approve _ 44 percent to 47 percent _ of the job the governor is doing, with women being the most critical. That's down from a 47-46 rating in April and a 52-40 approval rating in February.

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Reach Beth DeFalco on Twitter at http://twitter.com/BethDeFalco

Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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