The Governor Who Slashes Budgets With A Smile

Being a state governor these days stinks. Tax revenues have plunged. The stimulus money is spent and gone, and all governors get to do is cut budgets. But one governor, Chris Christie of New Jersey, is turning all that pain into national fame. Christie has become a conservative sensation with his vow to gut the size of state government and veto higher taxes. Every week in New Jersey, he picks some sort of budget fight with teachers or firefighters or the mass transit system. Despite all the protests from the unions, Christie appears to be winning.

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Yesterday in Trenton, New Jersey, thousands of teachers, firefighters and other state workers marched against proposed budget cuts. But the marchers were even more unhappy with the man who's doing the cutting: Republican Governor Chris Christie. Lots of state governors are trimming spending these days, but Christie has shown so much zeal and even pleasure in slashing the size of government that he's become a conservative sensation.

NPR's Robert Smith has more.

ROBERT SMITH: In downtown Newark, even teenagers who can't name a single past governor of the Garden State know the Chris Christie name.

Ms. ALIYA OXHART: That is just so messed up what Christie is doing right now.

Ms. BIANCA LINDER: Christie is talking about cutting budgets. How can we have that kind of future if you keep cutting our funding?

Ms. MIATTA LEWIS: Especially the public schools in the urban areas.

SMITH: Aliya Oxhart(ph), Bianca Linder(ph) and Miatta Lewis(ph) are all students at Arts High School. They expect to lose afterschool programs if Christie's education cuts go through. But other than that, Miatta has more questions than answers.

Ms. LEWIS: I don't know as much about him as I should.

SMITH: Well, don't worry, Miatta. Just about everything you need to know about Governor Chris Christie you can get from watching a little press conference video that went viral this week on the Internet. Christie had just been asked a question about his confrontational tone.

Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (Republican, New Jersey): You must be the thinnest skinned guy in America 'cause you think that's a confrontational tone, then, you know, you should really see me when I'm pissed.

SMITH: Oh, but Christie was just getting warmed up.

Gov. CHRISTIE: This is who I am. Like it or not, you guys are stuck with me for four years. And I'm going to say things directly, straightly, bluntly and nobody in New Jersey is going to have to wonder where I am on an issue.

SMITH: How could anyone wonder after his dramatic first four months as governor? Christie proposed cut after cut to education, transportation, libraries, you name it. Democrats tried to forestall some of the cuts by passing a tax hike on millionaires - Christie vetoed it. Every week, Christie takes on one state union or another over their salaries or pensions, and the unions have flooded the airwaves with ads attacking Christie.

Miatta Lewis, our high school senior, says she's seen the ads, she just doesn't understand something.

Ms. LEWIS: I read in the newspaper that we were one of the most financially well-off states. So, what happened to New Jersey to make the money run so dry that he had to take such drastic measures?

SMITH: Well, you're right. During the 1980s and '90s, New Jersey did lead the region in job growth. But you can't just blame the recession here. James Hughes, dean of the School of Public Policy at Rutgers, says the economy dried up over the entire last decade.

Professor JAMES HUGHES (Dean, School of Public Policy, Rutgers University): The once-great New Jersey job creation machine fully stalled.

SMITH: Problem was, New Jersey state officials didn't really notice. They spent the last decade growing the size of government, and when the recession hit, the budget deficit as $11 billion. Enter Chris Christie, former federal prosecutor, running for governor on a slash-and-burn platform.

Ms. LEWIS: 'Cause he said when he was running for governor that he was going to be doing budget cuts. So, why didn't people get riled up enough about it to go out and vote against him?

SMITH: Another good question. Ben Dworkin runs the Institute for New Jersey Politics at Ryder University. He says that Christie was never very specific about where those cuts would come from.

Mr. BEN DWORKIN (Institute for New Jersey Politics, Ryder University): You know, it was one of those situations where a politician gets up and says, I'm going to cut waste and fraud and not raise taxes. Well, no one really believes you're going to do that.

SMITH: Well, they believe now. With every specific cut to a school district, a program for seniors or a state park, Governor Christie's approval rating drops - it's now around 33 percent. Which prompts Miatta to ask:

Ms. LEWIS: Will he stay in office? Will he be reelected?

SMITH: 2013 is a long way off. Christie's political future lives or dies on how New Jersey's economy is doing in three years. Christie would answer another way:

Gov. CHRISTIE: I'm not in this to win a popularity contest and I don't care about polls that go up and down from day to day or week to week.

SMITH: And despite the Democrats' frustration with his policies, there is some respect for his bluntness. Even Miatta Lewis, who walked out of her high school class to protest education budget cuts, feels that Christie is being straight with her.

Ms. LEWIS: Yeah, even if I don't like what he's doing, I feel right the way he goes about doing it. I mean, at least we know.

SMITH: And Christie says if you don't like that, well, vote him out.

Robert Smith, NPR News.

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