Friday, March 26, 2010

TRENTON, N.J. | There’s not a lot that’s small about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The Republican is a big man with a big personality and a big problem - namely, closing a nearly $11 billion deficit in a state whose residents labor under the biggest property-tax burden in the country.

The former U.S. attorney got elected in November on a promise to make government smaller. And the straightforward - some would say in-your-face - way he is going about it is getting noticed.

Dubbed “Gov. Wrecking Ball” by one columnist, Mr. Christie has wasted no time trying to break lawmakers’ “addiction to spending” and tearing down the political establishment that has pushed New Jersey’s property taxes to an average of $7,300 per household.

Some say he has governed by fiat; he has signed 20 executive orders since taking office in January - eight on his first day alone. Among other things, the orders freeze regulations and subject unions to the same campaign restrictions as corporations. He has vetoed spending by various boards and barred state agencies from hiring lobbyists to influence state lawmakers.

He has also taken on the widespread abuses that have contributed to soaring pension costs. On Monday, he signed his first bills into law, making major pension changes that result in less generous benefits for all government workers.

Most contentious have been his attacks on teachers and public-sector unions, which are getting a 7 percent pay raise over two years but contribute little or nothing toward health care at a time when one in 10 New Jerseyans are out of work. This week, the governor called on all public school employees to agree to salary freezes for the coming year and to contribute to their health insurance.

Mr. Christie’s budget proposal calls for laying off 1,300 public employees and looks to save $50 million by privatizing some state services.

“The leaders of the union who represent these teachers have used their political muscle to set up two classes of citizens in New Jersey: those who enjoy rich public benefits and those who pay for them,” he said in his budget address last week.

This take-no-prisoners approach is getting national attention at a time when the Republican Party faces questions about its future.

“Is it wrong to love another man? Because I love Chris Christie,” conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said.

Jeff Henig, a professor of political science at Columbia University, suggested Mr. Christie may be taking advantage of the hard economic times to do what he wanted to do anyway — reduce the size of government.

“All governors have to make cuts these days. Some portray this as a painful necessity, and others seem to do it with a certain element of enthusiasm, pleased to use the economic crunch as an opportunity to take steps they wanted to do all along,” Mr. Henig said.

Mr. Christie makes no apologies for his straight-ahead approach.

“Here’s the thing: People voted me to come here to act and to be decisive and to move this state in a different direction, and I’m doing it,” he said.

So far, Mr. Christie has a good approval rating at 52 percent, but there have been snags and missed targets.

Two of his executive orders - including the campaign restrictions on unions - have been challenged. He might be back in court over the $1.3 billion in school funding that he is proposing to cut this year and next.

He could not fulfill a campaign promise to restore property tax rebates that were suspended. He vowed to lay off 20,000 public employees immediately, but so far that number is just 1,300. He said he didn’t need legislative approval to make $2.2 billion in cuts to the current budget, then soon realized he did need lawmakers’ endorsement.

The approachable Mr. Christie is as friendly as he is forceful, and has something his predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, a staggeringly rich man who made his fortune on Wall Street, never had: regular-guy appeal.

Unlike Mr. Corzine, who was stiff and awkward and seen as an outsider, Mr. Christie is all Jersey - born and raised. He struggles with his weight, he is a die-hard Mets fan, and he loves Bruce Springsteen. He tries to make it back home for dinner most nights.

Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who ran for lieutenant governor on Mr. Corzine’s unsuccessful ticket, called Mr. Christie’s criticism of public workers immature. “To set up this ‘we-and-they’ is like a playground fight,” she said.

But Bob Balerna of Willingboro, who owns a car dealership and some rental housing, said small-business owners are getting crushed by the economy, and Mr. Christie is doing something about it.

“Someone has to take a stand, and I’m behind him 100 percent,” Mr. Balerna said. “Greatest thing I’ve ever done is to vote for him.”

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