NPR logo Gov. Christie Gets Big Win In New Jersey Over Public Unions

Gov. Christie Gets Big Win In New Jersey Over Public Unions

Protesting New Jersey public employee union members and supporters in Trenton, Monday, June, 20, 2011. Mel Evans/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

toggle caption

Protesting New Jersey public employee union members and supporters in Trenton, Monday, June, 20, 2011.


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the man many Republicans wish would enter the 2012 presidential race, just burnished his credentials as a fiscal conservative who gets results.

In a vote that's being described as historic, Christie got his state assembly on Thursday to pass legislation to force significant cuts to the collective bargaining rights and the benefits of unionized state workers. The benefits of retired state workers would be cut, too.

It's an effort to solve, over decades, the state's nagging crisis of having one the most underfunded public-employee's pension systems in the nation.

What makes Christie's success so noteworthy is he achieved it with help from about a third of the Democrats in the assembly in a state with a long tradition of strong unions.

Here's some sense of what happened from the Newark Star Ledger's

Union members chanted outside the Statehouse and in the Assembly balcony, and dissident Democrats tried to stall with amendments and technicalities. Although they successfully convinced top lawmakers to remove a controversial provision restricting public workers' access to out-of-state medical care, they failed to halt a historic defeat for New Jersey's powerful unions and a political victory for Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

The New York Times provides details of the benefits cuts embodied in the legislation, expected to be passed by the state senate early next week, and signed by Christie soon after.

The legislation will sharply increase what state and local workers must contribute for their health insurance and pensions, suspend cost-of-living increases to retirees' pension checks, raise retirement ages and curb the unions' contract bargaining rights. It will save local and state governments $132 billion over the next 30 years, by the administration's estimate, and give the troubled benefit systems a sounder financial footing, mostly by shifting costs onto workers...

... The fight over benefits reflected both Mr. Christie's ability to exploit the divisions among Democrats, through his alliances with more conservative Democratic party bosses and legislators, and his success at using the public-sector unions as a foil in his drive to shrink government spending. It has also allowed a nationally known but highly polarizing governor to claim the mantle of bipartisan conciliation, telling audiences that New Jersey is setting an example that other states and the federal government should follow.

Christie's office issued a statement:

Trenton, NJ – Demonstrating once again that New Jersey is leading the way with bipartisan solutions for the toughest challenges facing states today, Governor Christie secured final legislative passage tonight for landmark pension and health benefit reform. The reforms passed this evening in the Assembly after receiving passage in the Senate on Monday. The fundamental reforms, passed with bipartisan support from Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, will shake up New Jersey's out-of-date, antiquated and increasingly expensive pension and health benefit systems. These historic reforms bring to an end years of broken promises and fiscal mismanagement by securing the long-term solvency of the pension and benefit systems, while at the same time achieving critical savings for state and local governments. Pension reform alone will provide savings to New Jersey taxpayers of over $120 billion over the next 30 years, and an additional $3.1 billion over the next 10 years from health benefits reform.

"Together, we're showing New Jersey is serious about providing long-term fiscal stability for our children and grandchildren. We are putting the people first and daring to touch the third rail of politics in order to bring reform to an unsustainable system," Governor Chris Christie said. "I want to thank Senate President Sweeney and Speaker Oliver for putting aside politics, committing themselves to reform and remaining unwilling to settle for anything less than the real, viable solutions New Jerseyans have been demanding."

The governor's office, by the way, has created a slogan to capture his efforts to fix his state's fiscal problems. It's "Doing the Big Things. Can't Stop Now." The message is displayed on a sign at the governor's frequent town-hall meetings. You can easily see that slogan shifted to a national campaign, say for president, if not in 2012 than 2016.

As the NY Times notes, New Jersey does have a particular political culture that might have made Christie's selling job somewhat easier.

In his campaign to rein in the unions and shrink government, Mr. Christie has often been helped by New Jersey's unique political culture, where local political machines still dominate some areas, and many state legislators also hold local government jobs. That gives striking influence in Trenton to mayors, county executives and local party bosses who struggle with rising labor costs and have repeatedly sided with the governor's push to cut benefits and wages.