Christie shoots for new political winds with pension proposal

Trouble in Trenton for Christie?
Trouble in Trenton for Christie?

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Trouble in Trenton for Christie? 02:34

(CNN)New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unveiled a proposal Tuesday to reform his state's pension system, one day after a New Jersey judge ruled that the governor illegally underfunded that same system.

Christie's proposal comes after deliberations between his administration and New Jersey's largest teachers union, one of Christie's most bitter rivals, which has signed on to the roadmap that will serve as the basis for Christie's proposal. Christie's office characterized the collaboration with the union as "groundbreaking," but the New Jersey Education Association is being cautious, emphasizing that there is still no agreement and that the two parties are just having conversations.
Christie called on the state legislature Tuesday to tackle the state's pension woes and told lawmakers that he is "committed to working with each and every one of you in good faith to make a promise to the people of this state that we will not push this off."
New Jersey would funnel $1.3 billion into the state's pension fund under Christie's budget proposal, according to the governor's office, which characterized the proposal as the "largest single pension payment" in the state's history.
    But that payment would come after Christie underfunded the state's pension system last year, a move that violated the 2011 pension reform law Christie signed and which New Jersey State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled illegal on Monday.
    Christie's office slammed the decision as an example of "liberal judicial activism," noting that the budget was passed by the state legislature, and vowed to appeal the decision.
    Christie, meanwhile, was defiant on Tuesday, dismissing the legal ruling.
    "We don't need any court to tell us we have a serious problem," he said. "I have stood behind this podium for five years talking about this problem candidly and openly."
    The court's decision Monday plastered just the latest of a string of bad headlines for Christie in the pages of state and national media as the governor considers launching a presidential campaign.
    Christie has faced criticism at home for his extensive travel outside New Jersey as he tends to his loftier political ambitions. But even those efforts are undercut by the hurdles he faces on the national stage, where he is reportedly struggling to pull support from big dollar establishment donors and potential backers who worry the haphazard state of New Jersey's fiscal house could hamstring a Christie run.
    Other Republican governors who are considering presidential bids have touted their states' strong finances. But Christie, whose budgetary challenges could be the worst in the field, insisted that New Jersey isn't unique on Tuesday.
    "Let me remind you, we are not alone in facing this dilemma," he said. "In state after state, pensions, health care costs, and debt service are crushing the ability of states to finance schools, colleges, new technology and new infrastructure. I will not willingly sit by and let this continue."
    Christie is looking to ride against the current of negative press he's received in recent weeks, portraying himself as a collaborator putting politics aside and working with the teacher's union to fix the state's pension and health benefits system.
    "I did not come here just to identify the problem, shrug my shoulders and return to business as usual. There are solutions and my work in this regard began months ago. I did not come here just to identify the problem, shrug my shoulders and return to business as usual. There are solutions and my work in this regard began months ago," Christie said in his speech. "But we cannot tax our way out of this problem."
    Christie also underscored the urgency of the situation, telling lawmakers that "this problem is eating us away little by little."
    And while Christie's office touted the governor's work with the teacher's union, which resisted reform when Christie tackled pension problems in 2010 and 2011, the New Jersey Educational Alliance insisted its adversarial relationship with the governor hasn't really changed.
    "Just because we've had conversations with his commission does not indicate in any way that the relationship between the governor and the NJEA has changed," said Steve Wollmer, the group's communications director.
    And while Wollmer acknowledged that "everybody acknowledges there's a problem here that has to be solved," he also called it one of Christie's own making.
    Wollmer said Christie's decision to underfund the public pensions put the system in disarray after a 2011 reform law that was already tough for the state's public workers to stomach.
    "He's taken a bad situation and made it dramatically worse," Wollmer said. "He can't take credit for much here because the problem that we're trying to solve, he helped create."