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N.J.'s Christie is blunt -- and right -- on fiscal control

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon says Christie's dustup with columnist over blunt style was honest, welcome
  • Avlon says it's time for straight talk on fiscal realities for states
  • He says spending on public sector unions, pensions is driving long-term deficits
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Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- Governors' press conferences rarely go viral. But a spirited exchange between recently elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and a columnist for the Star-Ledger has become an instant YouTube classic at a time when fiscal battles are brewing in states around the nation.

The tough-guy governor and former prosecutor took the columnist to task for asking Christie, a Republican, whether he had adopted a "confrontational tone" in his budget battles with Democrats in the state legislature and with politically influential teachers' unions.

Now, we've seen plenty of the politics of confrontation and incitement over the past year; calling political opponents communist or fascist has become disturbingly commonplace at protests, obscuring underlying policy debates. But Chris Christie did something different. He didn't demonize the people he disagreed with: Instead, he showed a sense of humor -- and unapologetically stood his ground. Take a look for yourself.

"You must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America, 'cause you think that's a confrontational tone, you should really see me when I'm pissed," Christie said while aides laughed alongside. "I love when people say they don't want to have argument. That's what we were sent here for.

"Here it is [he holds up a Democratic press release]: Bigger government, higher taxes, more spending. I believe in less government, lower taxes and in empowering local officials who are elected by their citizens to be able to fix their problems.

"Now, I could say it really nicely. I could say it in the way that you all might be more comfortable with. Maybe we could go back to the last administration where I could say it in a way you wouldn't even understand it, OK?...

"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. When you ask me questions, I'm going to answer them directly, straightly, bluntly and nobody in New Jersey is going to have to wonder where I am on an issue -- and I think they've had enough of politicians who make them wonder. I came here to govern, not to worry about re-election. I came here to do what people sent me here to do, and so 'blunt,' 'direct'? Maybe you might say 'honest and refreshing.' Maybe we could see that in your paper tomorrow."

This exchange matters not only because it actually was "honest and refreshing," but also because it might be a sign of coming attractions to a state near you.

Coast to coast, states are wrestling with budget deficits and escalating debts they cannot afford to sustain. Simply raising taxes further will only compound the problem, driving out businesses and citizens and shrinking the already strained tax base. States that used federal stimulus funds to Band-Aid their budgets in 2009 are finding their problems are just beginning.

It's the spending, specifically on public sector unions and their pensions (amid an aging population and a bad economy) that is driving the long-term deficits. It is a problem that cannot be finessed. It must be dealt with fairly but directly for states to regain control of their budgets.

New Jersey is something of a bellwether state, where registered independents outnumber Democrats or Republicans.

But despite the recent Democratic dominance of statewide races, weeks after Christie narrowly beat incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, a Quinnipiac poll asked how the state should balance the budget. The results showed support for fiscally conservative solutions. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they supported a wage freeze for state workers, 68 percent said they would rather cut services than raise taxes, and 61 percent backed public sector layoffs.

Christie inherited a nearly $11 billion deficit when he took office and proposed a tough prescription of fiscal discipline, consistent with his campaign and the will of the voters. He resisted the tax hikes that previous governors had tried to close the chronically out of balance state budget. Instead he proposed that state workers contribute 1.5 percent into their health plans -- up from zero -- matched by a pay freeze and a property tax cap.

Initially, Christie found bipartisan support for his pension reform plans from Democratic State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, himself a private sector union member. His constituents have faced steep property taxes in a state with the highest combined state and local tax rate in the nation.

"Public sector unions have so squeezed the economy that even private sector unions feel a need to push back," says Fred Siegel, a visiting professor at St. Francis College and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "It's hard to see how cities and states get out from under their crushing debt load unless they can win concessions from the public sector unions."

But when cuts came to public education, the teachers union fought a proposed 5 percent cut from state aide per school district, which would bring budgets in line to where they had been mid-decade. New Jersey schools, like other parts of state government, had seen spending and hires increase at a far greater rate than the population: School hiring increased by 14 percent over the past decade, while school enrollment grew by only 3 percent, and wage costs have increased by 43 percent.

Cuts are always emotional, but they do not represent gutting the school system, as teachers unions charged.

Adding to the loss of perspective were teacher union Facebook posts that compared Christie to Hitler and Pol Pot. The president of the Bergen County union e-mailed his 17,000 members a "joke" e-mail that prayed for Christie's death -- not exactly setting the best example for schoolchildren.

The battles that lead to balanced budgets are often ugly and contentious, and New Jersey has until July 1 to meet that mandated benchmark.

But what's clear in the Garden State, as in so many others, is that the time for gamesmanship and fear-mongering is over. We cannot pass the buck to another administration, let alone another generation. State governments must learn to live within their means, just like the citizens they represent.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.