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NJ gov muscles Legislature for quicker action

By Angela Delli Santi
Associated Press Writer / October 13, 2010

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EWING, N.J.—The New Jersey Legislature isn't acting quickly enough to satisfy the Republican governor.

Gov. Chris Christie accused the Democratic-controlled Legislature of sitting on its hands rather than advancing his pension and health benefits, education and ethics reform agenda.

Christie told a town hall audience of about 100 people on Tuesday that the Legislature has 70 days to act before recessing for Christmas on bills he deemed crucial to help stabilize the state's highest-in-the-nation property taxes. He mocked the Legislature for having misplaced priorities -- approving bills on pet sterilization and how to destroy confiscated tobacco -- then scolded its leaders for failing to debate bills that raise the retirement age, create merit pay for teachers and require lawmakers to disclose more of their income and assets.

"It's time to stop with the pet sterilization bills and the destroying tobacco contraband bills. It's time to stop with the foolishness," Christie said. "Is that what we're spending our time on when we have 70 days left to really reform the system and capture the momentum that we're feeling in this state and this country to change our course?"

Christie said the legislative branch, over which he has no direct control, isn't working hard enough.

"Maybe they just haven't been working too hard for a long time, and maybe they are kind of stunned to have someone keep pushing more and more ideas down the hallway for their consideration," he said. "It's time to get to work."

The governor also criticized the Senate for failing to give his nominee to the state Supreme Court a confirmation hearing in five months. Democrats have refused to consider corporate lawyer Anne Patterson because they are angry that the governor refused to reappoint Justice John Wallace, a moderate who would have reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in two years.

Christie on Tuesday defended that decision, saying Wallace was part of an activist court that went beyond interpreting statutes and ventured into making laws. He said only a reshaped court would return decision-making powers to elected officials on such issues as how to fund public education.

Christie said he was buoyed by a Fairleigh Dickinson-PublicMind poll out Tuesday that showed voters solidly behind his fiscal conservatism. He said he was emboldened by a 20 percent turnaround in the number of New Jersey residents who like the direction of the state. The poll showed 48 percent now believe the state is on the wrong track (44 percent believe it's on the right track) compared with 68 percent who felt it was off-track a year ago (21 percent believed it was on the right track then).

"This is the best New Jerseyans have felt about their state in a decade," the governor said.

Tom Hester Jr., a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, said New Jersey property taxes have skyrocketed because of ill-fated Republican policies.

"The governor and his Republican friends may not have noticed while he was playing politics touring the country on behalf of conservative candidates, but as the speaker has said, the Assembly is developing bills that actually control property taxes, unlike much of what the governor proposed," Hester said.

Christie proposed nearly three dozen bills to help stabilize property taxes after signing into law a 2 percent annual cap on property tax and budget increases. The related measures are supposed to relieve local costs so towns and school districts can budget within the cap without drastically reducing services. The cap goes into effect on Jan. 1, replacing a 4 percent cap.

New Jersey residents pay the highest property taxes in the country, averaging around $7,300 per household.

Democratic lawmakers have proposed alternate measures, some of which have been debated and advanced. One key component of the reform that hasn't yet been considered is a cap on the amount arbitrators can award police and firefighters who reach an impasses in their contract talks. Others proposals, like one allowing towns to opt out of the civil service system for hiring employees, are unlikely to advance because of Democratic opposition.

Derek Roseman, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said Christie praised Senate President Steve Sweeney just two weeks ago for moving the reform agenda forward.

"Nothing has changed on our part," Roseman said. "What possibly could have happened on the governor's?"