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CULLING: Chris Christie: A frugal fighter
N.J. governor imposes fiscal order in a blue state
After a series of public statements and YouTube speeches in which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie excoriated teachers unions and made refreshing comments about the failure of big government
in the Garden State, conservatives nationwide understandably rallied behind him. Those with even a slightly nuanced understanding of the unsustainability of public-employee wages, benefits and pensions craved the type of straight talk on the issue many politicians had promised previously but failed to deliver.
A quick Google search of the governor's name turns up fawning praise from every corner of the conservative movement. But some on the right are encouraging caution before doubling down on Christie-mania. Politicians aren't exactly the most trustworthy people on Earth, and the governor has yet to sign his first budget. The worst thing that could happen, the skeptics argue, would be for the right to go so far in the tank for Mr. Christie that when he starts to wobble on core conservative-libertarian principles (think the Republican Congress during the George W. Bush years), we feel the need to look the other way.
Expressing such caution is certainly valid, especially among conservatives and libertarians, who view the executive branch with a healthy dose of skepticism. But in Mr. Christie's six months on the job, he's done far more to earn the respect of national conservatives than give a few compelling speeches.
Along with a series of common-sense proposals like a constitutional amendment capping the growth of local property taxes at 2.5 percent annually, forcing teachers to pay a portion of their health insurance premiums (previously fully funded by taxpayers) and a moratorium on tax increases, Mr. Christie put forth a slimmed-down budget proposal in the wake of five consecutive gubernatorial administrations that raised state spending on net.
Americans for Tax Reform noted this week that state spending in the Christie budget proposal was nearly 5 percent less than under predecessor Jon Corzine's final budget. Taking federal stimulus dollars into account, the budget was more than 8 percent smaller, as Mr. Christie's budget is 55 percent less reliant on a federal bailout than Mr. Corzine's. He refused to extend the income-tax increase on high earners, vetoing a "millionaires' tax" less than two minutes after it passed the legislature.
The governor achieved these savings largely through principled cuts in state aid to localities, a strategy that has come under fire from some on the right as putting upward pressure on local tax rates. This argument is problematic for two reasons.
First, it assumes that local governments in New Jersey exist at their optimal sizes and that additional revenue is necessary to replace disappearing state aid. Advocates for small government, on the contrary, recognize the need for all levels of government to "right-size" during this economic downturn, coming to terms with the fact that profligacy in times of economic expansion leads to unsustainable levels of government growth. It is important to learn the correct lessons from this crisis - that budget holes are a product of overspending - rather than bemoan the decline in government revenue.
Second, the contention that Mr. Christie's cuts to local aid will lead to higher local taxes specifically ignores the aforementioned property-tax cap that he proposed with the express purpose of taking tax increases off the table for municipalities. The cap, a constitutional amendment, will succeed where past efforts to slow the growth of New Jersey property taxes have proved ineffective. Most recently, Mr. Corzine as governor signed a statutory 4 percent property-tax cap so rife with loopholes that it was effectively meaningless. It exempted government spending on pensions and health care, but the Christie amendment does not allow such exemptions, seriously curtailing property-tax growth.
To be sure, the initial Christie budget proposal was not perfect. It included tax increases on hospitals and ambulatory care providers that represent a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Some may quibble with the way the $29.4 billion is prioritized. But to achieve $2.6 billion in savings year over year in a deep-blue state with such a strong culture of unionization deserves the support of the conservative movement. Imagine what he'll achieve should Republicans take control of the state Legislature in 2011.
Joshua Culling is state affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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