It's Time to Do the Big Things

GOVERNOR CHRISTIE: Thank you very much for the introduction and for the invitation to be here today. I came today because I really think it's extraordinarily important for those of us who believe that our country is off on the wrong track, to begin the conversation and for New Jersey's sake to continue the conversation about how we fix the problems that ail our states and our country in a direct and blunt way. And I fear that after watching how things have been going over the last month of two, that we're missing a historic opportunity. And I will not be one that will participate, in silently missing that opportunity. A month ago I gave my State of the State speech in New Jersey and what I said during that speech was that I was not going to do the normal State of the State or State of Union speech that you see. George Will put it better than I ever could, that these speeches have become every politicians attempt to stroke the erogenous zones of every constituency in their jurisdiction. They become this laundry list of things that you do for your cabinet so that as they're sitting up in the balcony, and you mention the Department of Labor the commissioner and smile and sit up straight because at the time his mother is going to see him on TV. I didn't think it was a good enough of a reason, as much as I love my commissioner of labor, to give a speech like that, especially during these times. During these times, as I said in that speech, it's time to do the big things, the really big things and I don't think they're will be much disagreement in this room and don' think there should be much disagreement across the country as to what those things are. What they are for NJ and what they are for America. For us in NJ, it's restoring and maintaining fiscal sanity, it's getting our pension and health benefits under control reformed and have the cost lowered, and it's reforming our education system that costs too much and produces too little for our society today and for our children's future. Now if you look at those three issues, they are not in and of themselves partisan issues. Each governor across America is confronting the same things that I'm confronting in NJ , a decade or more of out of control spending, in many if not most states, state taxes and for just general borrowing , debt loads that are out of control for entitlements or for just general borrowing, every governor republican or democrat is facing this problem. Just look at our little area of the world. You have me, In New Jersey elected in 2009 as a conservative republican governor elected in one of the bluest states in America and across the river you have the son of a liberal icon who is saying the exact same things that I'm saying.

I defy you to look at the first six weeks of the Cuomo administration in Albany and discern much of a difference between what Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying and what Governor Chris Christie is saying on these big issues. And it's not because all of a sudden Governor Cuomo and I have decided that we're members of the same party, because we're not but we are confronted with the same problems and these problems and issues are not partisan. They are obvious and long overdue to be solved and so that's why you see Andrew Cuomo or for God's sake even Jerry Brown in California talking about reducing salaries of state workers by 8-10%. Saying the same things that Scott walker is fighting Wisconsin, that John Kasich is fighting in Ohio, that Rick Snyder is fighting in Michigan, that Susana Martinez in fighting in New Mexico. I said to the people of New Jersey when I ran for governor in 2009, that if they gave me the opportunity to be their governor that not only would the state go on a path toward fiscal recovery, but we would also lead the nation because we would have a one year head start on everybody because of our odd election year. We would have a one year head start on a huge new class of governors that would come in the election of 2010. Now you can imagine how that was received in New Jersey. Now this was a state, that during my time as a United States Attorney, was known predominantly for a few things; political corruption, "The Sopranos", "The Real Housewives of New Jersey", and now most regrettably "The Jersey Shore". Not a place that thought of itself as a national leader in something that would matter for our children's future. But I believe that part of that leadership is understanding, articulating, and believing in that which is special and unique in the people that you serve. And having been born in New Jersey, and raised there, and lived there all my life I know that if presented with a challenge directly, without any sugar coating, that the people of New Jersey would step up to the plate and answer the call.

Just because we went through that once or one and a half if you count fiscal year 10-doesn't mean we should be self congratulatory patting ourselves on the back and take our eye off the ball.

And after 13 months now as governor, I think we have plenty of evidence that we were right in 2009. When I came into office we confronted a $2.2 billion budget deficit for fiscal year '10. The one that had five months left. The one that Governor Corzine told me was just fine, cruise path into the next fiscal year Governor. Don't worry about it everything is fine. $2.2 billion. My chief of staff in my first week as governor brought me a sheet of paper that showed me that if I did not act immediately to stop the planned spending that New Jersey would not meet its payroll for the second pay period in March. Imagine that. The state that has the second highest per capita income in America had so overspent, over-borrowed, over-taxed-that it would not meet payroll in March of 2010. So we acted immediately to use the executive authority of the governorship to impound $2.2 billion in projected spending. Without the permission of the legislature. Without compromise because it was not the time for compromise. And without raising taxes on the people of the State who had had their taxes raised and fees 115 times in the eight years preceding my governorship. 115 tax and fee increases in eight years. So we impounded spending and we balanced the budget. And we turned immediately towards this fiscal year that we're in now. And were confronted with an $11 billion budget deficit on a $29 billion budget. The highest budget deficit by percentage of any state in America. And believe me the partisan democrats in my state believed they had me right where they wanted me. We would have to raise taxes. And they put it right down on the table and said they wanted to increase the tax they love the most-the income tax and specifically they called it the millionaires tax.

My chief of staff in my first week as governor brought me a sheet of paper that showed me if I did not act immediately to stop the planned spending, that New Jersey would not meet its payroll for the second pay period in March. Imagine that. The state that has the second highest per capita income in America had so overspent, over borrowed and overtaxed that it would not meet payroll in March of 2010. So we acted immediately to use the executive authority of the governorship to impound 2.2 billion dollars in projected spending. Without the permission of the legislature. Without compromise because it was not the time for compromise. And without raising taxes on the people of the state who had their taxes raised and fees 115 times in the 8 years preceding my governorship. 115 tax and fee increases in 8 years. So we impounded spending and we balanced the budget and turned immediately towards this fiscal year that we are in now and we are confronted with an 11 billion dollar budget deficit on a 29 billion dollar budget. The highest budget deficit by percentage of any state in America. And believe me, the partisan democrats in my state believed they had me right where they wanted me. He would have to raise taxes. And they put it right down on the table and said they wanted to increase the tax they love the most-the income tax and specifically they called it the millionaires tax.

Now of course this leads me to have to give you an aside about New Jersey math. See, when democrats in New Jersey call it a millionaires tax that's for anyone who makes 400,000 or over-that's called new jersey math. So for businesses or individuals who have 400,000 in income or more they wanted to raise their taxes, again, from a 9% top marginal rate to nearly 11%. And they told me that if I did not agree they would close down the government. There would be no budget in 2011 without an income tax increase.

Now you know, this had happened 4 years earlier in NJ under Governor Corzine, they were arguing how much to raise taxes. And the Democrat controlled legislature closed down the government on the Democratic governor because they couldn't agree on how much to raise the sales tax. And Governor Corzine very famously invited the press into his office, now my office, and there was cot in the office. I can tell you it's not normally there. And he said to them," I'm going to be sleeping in this cot, right over here, until this crisis is averted." So I knew these were the same fellas who had been in the legislature when he was there now threatening to do the same thing. So I decided to call them down early on and advise them that the place was under new management. And what I said to them was listen, if you want to pass an income tax increase that's fine, I'm going to veto it. And if you want to close down the government because of that, that's fine. But I want to tell you something-I'm not moving any cot into this office to sleep in here. If you close down the government I'm getting into those black SUV's with the troopers and going to the governor's residence I'm going to go upstairs, I'm going to open a beer, I'm going order a pizza, I'm going to watch the Mets. And when you decide to reopen the government give me a call and I'll come back. But don't think I'm sleeping on some cot take a look at me you think I'm sleeping on a cot- not happening.

So we stood up, we stood for our principles we submitted a budget that cut real spending by 9% year over year not projected growth-real spending, 9%, every department of state government was cut. And we balanced the budget without any new or increase taxes on the people of the state of New Jersey for the first time in 8 years. And the budget they called "dead on arrival without an income tax increase" was passed 2 days early with 99.8% of the line items exactly as they were when I submitted them back in March. With a Democratic legislature. Why? Because we stood up for what we believed in and we made it very clear that we would not compromise on our principles-we'd compromise on things that were not core principle items-but we were not going to compromise on raising taxes on the people of New Jersey.

That leads us now to today. And that's why fiscal discipline is so important. Because just because we went through that once or one and a half if you count fiscal year 10-doesn't mean we should be self congratulatory patting ourselves on the back and take our eye off the ball. This is a problem that took a decade to develop and it's going to take longer than a year for us to fix. Fiscal discipline is extraordinarily important not just for New Jersey but for America.

The way we used to think about politics and unfortunately the way I fear they're thinking about politics still in Washington D.C. See the old playbook says lie, deceive, obfuscate and make it to the next election.

Now we have a whole new way of budgeting in New Jersey. We don't assume every program will be funded anymore we don't assume a certain increase in every budget. The democratic legislature will come out and say I have some $10 billion or so deficit for this year. That's because they're playing in the old playbook. Which says that everything I did last year of course the next year I'd want to reverse and go right back. That is not going to happen. And it can't happen if states are going to progress and get out of this crisis. We now have to stick to a new type of approach to budgeting-budgeting from the bottom up. Requiring as I do now of everyone one of my cabinet officers that they come to me and not tell me what each one of their programs cost and how much they're willing to cut it. But to say to me which one of your programs are absolutely necessary and how much do you need to fund them. This is how much money you're getting and whatever doesn't fit in your equation is out. We have to fund that which we really need and to do that we have to cut that which is just what we'd like rather than what we need.

And you'll hear this debate going on down here now. You'll have folks tell you that every bit of federal spending is absolutely necessary and laudatory. It's not. And in fact some of its not even laudatory let alone necessary. But we have to bring a new approach and new discipline to this. And when people say you can't tackle these big problems look at what we're doing on pensions and benefits-pensions and benefits are the equivalent of federal entitlement at the state level. They are no different. They have no more vocal constituency at the federal level than they do at the state level. Take my word for it. I rolled out my pension and benefit reform in September on a Tuesday and that Friday I went to the firefighters convention in Wildwood, New Jersey. 7,500 firefighters at 2 o'clock on a Friday afternoon-I think you know what they had for lunch. And I rolled out a very specific pension and benefit reform proposal. On pensions: raise the retirement age, eliminate COLAS, increase the amount employees have to contribute to their pension every year. And roll back a 9% increase that was given to them by a republican governor and a republican legislature and they had no way to pay for it. Those 4 reforms would take our current pension system which is underfunded by $54 billion dollars and in 30 years cut it in half-$28 billion dollars. Real reform getting us on the glide path to solvency. You can imagine how that was received by 7,500 firefighters. As I walked into the room and was introduced I was booed lustily. I made my way up to the stage they booed some more. I got to the microphone they booed some more. So I said come on you can do better than that and they did! They did! And then I said to them-I took away the prepared notes I had for the speech-I actually took them off of the podium and crumpled them up and threw them on the ground. And I said here's the deal: I understand you're angry and I understand you're frustrated and I understand you feel deceived and betrayed. And the reason you feel all the things is because you have been deceived and you have been betrayed. And for 20 years, governors have come into this room and lied to you. Promised you benefits that they had no way of paying for making promises they knew they couldn't keep and just hoping they wouldn't be the man or women left holding the bag. I understand why you feel angry and betrayed and deceived by those people. Here's what I don't understand. Why you booing the first guy who came in here and told you the truth? See, there is no political advantage of me coming into that room and telling the truth.

The way we used to think about politics and unfortunately the way I fear they're thinking about politics still in Washington D.C. See the old playbook says lie, deceive, obfuscate and make it to the next election. You know there's a study that says by 2020 NJ is one of eleven states that's pension could be bankrupt. And when I told a friend of mine about that study he said to me well wait, by 2020 you won't be governor what the hell do you care? That's the way politics has been practiced in our country for too long and practiced in New Jersey for too long. So I said to those firefighters you may hate me now but 15 years from now when you have a pension to collect because of what I did you'll be looking for my address on the internet so you can send me a thank you note.

Leadership today in America has to be about doing the big things and being courageous. That's what it has to be about. Same thing with health benefit reform which is an analogy to Medicaid and Medicare here in Washington. And if you think the public workers in New Jersey hold on any less strongly to the benefits that they get through the government. Teacher s in NJ who pay nothing for their health insurance-nothing-from the day they are hired until the day they for full family medical coverage that costs the state of NJ 24,000 dollars per family. You don't think they're holding on to that tight-you're not paying attention. The battles are similar.

And here's the problem. You can't fix these problems if you don't talk about them. You cannot fix these problems without talking about them. And I look at what's happening in Washington DC right now and I'm worried. I'm worried. And I think-you know I heard the president's state of the union speech and it was two weeks after mine and he said America was about doing the big things. Now I'm not saying he copied me, I seen some writing about that, that's not what I'm saying. But I think it's important to note it because of what he says the big things are. He says the big things are high speed rail, the big things are high speed internet access for almost 80% of America or something by some date. One million electric cars on the road by some date. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the candy of American politics. Those are not the big things. Because let me guarantee you something, if we don't fix the real big things there are going to be no electric cars on the road. There is going to be no high speed internet access or if there is you're not going to be able to afford to get on it. We are not going to be able to care about the niceties of life-the investments that Washington wants to continue to make. That's not what we need to be talking about. No one is talking about it.

And now what this has become, I read, is a political strategy. The president is not talking about because he is waiting for the Republicans to talk about it. And our new, bold republicans we just sent to the House of Representatives aren't talking about it because they are waiting for him to talk about it. Let me suggest to you that my children's future and your children's future is more important than some political strategy. Let me suggest to you that what game is being played out here is irresponsible and it's dangerous. We need to say these things and we need to say them out loud- when we say were cutting spending, when we say everything is on the table, when we say we mean entitlement programs we should be specific.

And let me tell you what the truth is. What's the truth that no one is talking about-here is the truth that no one is talking about: you're going to have to raise the retirement age for social security. Oh I just said it and I'm still standing here! I did not vaporize into the carpeting and I said it! We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us. Once again lightning did not come through the windows and strike me dead. And we have to fix Medicaid because it's not only bankrupting the federal government, it's bankrupting every state government. There you go. If we're not honest about these things, on the state level about pensions and benefits and on the federal level about social security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we are on the path to ruin.

And you know now, I hear people saying, we're going too fast, we're going too fast. We need to slow down a little bit. I hear the same thing in New Jersey. In New Jersey all the time, the Legislature says 'the legislature is a deliberative body'. We need to study the governor's proposals. You know, I never worked in Trenton before I became Governor and they do speak a different language in state capitols and in this capitol. They speak different languages. So you need to get, when you become governor, and no one tells you this, but you need to get your English to Trenton dictionary. Because the language in Trenton is just much different. See when a legislature and I don't care whether this is the Congress or the State Legislature in New Jersey. When they say we need to study the executive's proposal you think because you speak English, that means they're really going to take some time, consider it and then act. No, no. What that means in Trenton and what I suspect it means in Washington also is this. It means we are going to drag our feet for as long as we can until we hope it dies a natural death because God knows we don't want our fingerprints on it for murdering it, but we also don't have the guts to do it. That's what 'study' means in government parlance. So in New Jersey they call me impatient, they call me lots of other things too. But they call me impatient among other things. Ladies and gentlemen I think it's time for some impatience. I think it's time for some impatience in America. Because if you think we're moving too slow, think about these statistics. The deficit stands at $1.6 trillion dollars, the social security system is going to be insolvent in 2037, and the Medicare system is expected to run out of money 2017. So I'm impatient? Because I want them to act now. Because I want our healthcare system to be secure for the future.

Because I want our retirement system to be secure for the future. See one of things that the public sector unions don't understand about my approach in New Jersey is that they think I'm attacking them. I'm attacking the leadership of the union. Because they're greedy and they're selfish and self-interested. The members of that union are being ill-served by the leadership of that union. And so what I say, what I'm doing, is to save your pension, to save your healthcare for the rest of your life and yeah you're going to have to take a little less. That's the way it goes, we're in difficult times and there were promises made that couldn't be kept. But it's not longer time to wait. And leadership in my opinion is not about waiting. You know I get four years as Governor New Jersey and I don't have time to wait. And anybody who leads a government, whether it's in another state or in America, has a defined period of time to act. And now I understand that this political strategy in Washington is about waiting out until 2012. That's 5 years away from Medicare insolvency. What's the excuse going to be then? You know, these are hard things to do. They are hard things to do, but they're not impossible to do and here's what politicians fear. What politicians fear is you do these things, like say what I just said, and you'll be vaporized into the carpet, politically. That's what they're afraid of.

But look at what happened again in New Jersey and New York. I was elected with 49% of the vote, in a three way race in November of 2009. The first Republican elected to statewide office in 12 years in New Jersey, but not with a majority. 49% of the vote and when I started to say we were going to cut k-12 education funding by more than a billion dollars, we're going to cut municipal aid by more than half a billion dollars, we're going to cut every program that we can find in government and balance without raising taxes. I had everybody telling me, Governor you can't do it. Your approval ratings will go in the toilet. People love these programs. And what I said to people was you know what I'm going to try an experiment hear. Let's start treating the people of New Jersey like adults. Because you think they don't know that we are in deep trouble than these are not the people I knew growing up. These are tough, smart, self aware people who understand that we've dug ourselves a hole for more than a decade and we're only going to get out by climbing and climbing is hard, really hard. But it's time to do it. And what's happened? After 13 months of fighting and arguing and pushing and impatience, my approval rating's at 54%. No disaster, in fact, more popular today than the day I was elected and that's in a state that is as Democratic as any state in America for a Republican governor.

I will not take responsibility for that approach. I will not take responsibility for leaving a generation of children behind in America. I won't do it.

But if you really want to see eye-popping numbers, look across the river. At the person who was recently characterized as my soul mate -I wonder how he feels about that! Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a poll that just came out 2 days ago, his job approval is at 77%, 77%. And all he's talked about is cutting spending, not raising taxes, addressing entitlement programs, Medicaid, pensions, taking on public sector unions, capping superintendent pay, the hard things. The things that people tell you will lead to political ruin, they don't. Politicians make this mistake all the time. They run last election next time. They think that what happened before will happen again. And they don't look around them to see that the times have changed. Our country and our states are weighed down by an albatross of irresponsibility. That we have hoisted upon ourselves as leaders and that you as citizens have permitted us to get away with. The last example of that is education reform and all I'll say about this, is that in my state, where we spend $17,620 per pupil per year, the highest in America, $24,000 per pupil in city of Newark, $28,000 in Asbury Park, and we have 104,000 students trapped in 200 failing schools across NJ and the education establishment says "don't worry help is on the way". And the help that's on the way is more money, more money. Well more money is not going to solve this problem until we take on the issues that really causing the problem, and until we as Americans are willing to do that final tough thing, which is to look the teacher's union across America in the eye and say to them 'you do not represent the best the teachers have to offer, you often represent the worst'. And it's time for us to honestly say, that we can separate the teachers from the union. We have great teachers in New Jersey, working hard and making a huge difference in the lives of many children, but we don't have enough of them. And one of the reason why we don't have enough of them is because the bad teachers who remain with lifetime tenure are crowding out opportunity for the good ones, and then when you have reductions the last ones in are the first ones out, because all that matters is seniority, and not talent. And so we send a new generation of teachers, good enthusiastic teachers away because we have built a system, as Michelle Rhee put better than I could, that cares more about the feelings of adults than it cares about the future of our children. I will not take responsibility for that approach. I will not take responsibility for leaving a generation of children behind in America. I won't do it. And we need to speak out and say it's time to fix that system. Tell me where else in America, well really there's two places, left in America where there's a profession where there is no reward for excellence and no consequence for failure. Of course we all the first one is weathermen. It doesn't matter, it's going to snow 6 inches, it snows 18. Well I said it was going to snow what's the difference? And they're right back on TV the next night. Unfortunately the second one is teaching. Because the great teacher, the only reward they get is the psychic reward of knowing that they've done a great job for the children in their classroom. And the teacher next door, the lousy teacher who doesn't care gets paid the same as the teacher who stays late and comes early, the same as the teacher who communicates with parents, the same as the teacher who feels it his or her their personal responsibility to lift each child up to the next grade.

That's not what America is. America is built on rewarding excellence and having consequence for failure. So we need to deal with that issue as well, not only in every state but in America. You know there's a lot of talk now about partisanship and the negative, angry tone in some of our political debates. And there is a time and a place for partisanship, I absolutely believe in that. And so did our founding fathers, they believed in partisanship. They believed in vigorous debate and so do I. It's the nature of our country based on our founding to have principal disagreements among people of good will and I'm not disagreeing with folks just for sake of disagreeing. And I'm not fighting for the sake of fighting. I fight for the things that matter. I save my energy for the fights of consequence. And as a result, some people say I'm too combative, some people say I'm too much of a fighter. Well I'll tell you I'm fighting now because now is the time that matters most for New Jersey's future and in America's future. We are teetering on the edge of disaster. And I love when people talk about American exceptionalism but, American exceptionalism has to include the courage to do the right thing. It cannot just be a belief that because we are exceptional, everything will work out ok. Part of truly being exceptional is being willing to do the difficult things, is to stop playing the political games, stop looking at the bumper pool of politics and to step up and start doing the right thing. This is the new era that we new elected officials have inherited. Whether we like it or not, that's the story and we have two choices; to either stand up and do the right thing, to speak the truth and speak it bluntly and directly or to join the long parade of leaders who have come before us and failed. And maybe people won't remember us, maybe they won't pin the responsibility for failure on us because there's been so much failure around us, but I did not run for this job for failure. I ran for this job for success. For success not just for me personally and my children, but success for my state. And hopefully, to provide an example for the rest of the country, that you can do the difficult things. See it seems to me, that what America is really all about is about a group of people who came from every corner of this earth because they wanted a chance for greatness. That's what has made us the greatest country on Earth. Our calling for greatness at this time is to confront these issues, to say them out loud, and to stop playing around and to not waste another minute.

You know, the World War II generation was called 'the greatest generation' and they were because they put their lives on the line to protect our way of life. And they're called the greatest generation because we judged them in the aftermath and we found them to be great, by any objective measure. Let me guarantee you one thing, we will be judged too. We will be judged by our children and our grandchildren that at this moment of crisis, what did we do? Did we bury our heads in the sand? Did we surround ourselves with our creature comforts and believe that just because we're America everything's going to be ok? Or will our children and grandchildren be able to say that at this moment of crisis, we stood up and did the hard things that made a future of greatness possible for them. Believe me, we will be judged. I know the way I want that judgment to turn out for me, and I know in the hearts and the minds of most New Jerseyans and Americans I know, how they want that judgment to turn out for them. So it's time for us to get to work, to find our greatness again. And I believe we will find our greatness through doing the big things, the really big things that will lead America to another century of exceptionalism and not a century of settling for second best. That's what this fight is about. If you're willing to join me, I'm willing to join you and that's what I came down here today to talk to you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Gov. Chris Christie is governor of New Jersey

Photo Credit: Peter Holden Photography

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