In his crusade to tighten government spending, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is micromanaging on an epic scale, playing a much more active role in local government affairs than any of the state’s governors in memory.
Last year, Christie convinced the Legislature to put a 2 percent cap on property tax increases. He said the tax limitation would be offset for localities by administrative changes that would offer them signifi cant fiscal relief. “We’ve been lobbying for these things for over 30 years,” says William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
But Christie hasn’t delivered on his promise to overhaul arbitration and civil service rules that cost localities significant amounts of money. As a result, local officials are worried they’ll be caught short. The property tax cap doesn’t apply to personnel costs such as health and pensions, which are rising rapidly, putting tax increases on the table. But that option cuts against the antitax mantra Christie has made central to New Jersey politics. “It would be political suicide in these economic times to raise taxes and reduce services,” Dressel says, “and that’s what they’re asking mayors and governing boards to do.”
Despite the fiscal pinch at the local level, Christie continues to push for spending freezes. In an unusual move, Christie inserted himself into local elections to ratify school budgets, calling on voters to reject any contracts that didn’t freeze wages. Voters in 58 percent of districts followed his advice -- the most in decades.
More recently, Christie threatened to withhold money from districts that don’t cap salaries for superintendents, singling out individual administrators along the way.
“It’s a way for him to justify how deeply he has had to cut education in the state,” says Deborah Howlett, president of the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank. “You can’t just cut aid to education, but you can talk about the unions and their excesses. The next year, you can talk about the administration and its excesses.”
Howlett predicts that because of its aff ction for local control -- New Jersey contains far more than its share of towns and school districts -- Christie inevitably will experience some blowback. And certainly public employee unions are doing everything they can to stop him, including recruiting dozens of candidates for local offices. For now though, Christie’s message about the need for belttightening at all levels of government continues to resonate. “At this point, it’s much more common to hear local officials, including Democrats, say that Christie is doing what he needs to do,” says John Weingart, a political science expert at Rutgers University, “rather than saying cuts are too severe and he’s crippling local government."