Usually the reference to a canary in a coal mine is used to cite some negative occurence. If the canary died, toxins in the air were high, and people would soon follow. Miners used this as a way of knowing when it was time to get out.
So, usually we’ll see the analogy used when something goes wrong somewhere, that may be an indicator of worse things to come.
But I’m turning that around. Strange things are happening this year in the political landscape. First, Massachusetts sends a Republican to the Senate in Ted Kennedy’s old seat. OK, so he’s a New England Republican who isn’t what I’d consider a staunch conservative, but he nonetheless is a departure from the liberal establishment that has ruled that state.
But let’s take a look at New Jersey. Remember when Obama tried to save Corzine? Christe, a Republican, won. And he won on a message of fiscal conservatism. OK, we’ve heard it all before. Politicians run on the flavor of the day, and then they take some symbolic steps along the way so they can claim that they kept their promises, but for the most part it’s business as usual.
Not this time, and not – shockingly enough – in New Jersey. The Governor has taken his own words seriously. He is taking dramatic action, and he is basically doing what he feels is right, even at the risk of his own political life. And indications are that the people are finally realizing that things are so screwed up, that they are willing to give this a go. When I say people, I mean the regular folks like you and me. Obviously, the teachers unions want to string Christie up, and they are running their PR campaigns about how this will destroy the state. In the past, such things usually worked. It looks like it’s not working right now. Almost nobody wants to take on the fight and look as if they are supporting tax increases and deficit spending.
Here is a link to Christie’s own words, and his plan of action. Let’s hope he can follow through. And maybe – just maybe – other states will take notice and see that the problem really is spending, and that we can learn to live without.
In the time we got here, of the approximately $29 billion budget there was only $14 billion left. Of the $14 billion, $8 billion could not be touched because of contracts with public worker unions, because of bond covenants, because of commitments we made accepting stimulus money. So we had to find a way to save $2.3 billion in a $6 billion pool of money.
When I went into the treasurer’s off in the first two weeks of my term, there was no happy meetings. They presented me with 378 possible freezes and lapses to be able to balance the budget. I accepted 375 of them.
There is a great deal of discussion about me doing that by executive action. Every day that went by was a day where money was going out the door such that the $6 billion pool was getting less and less. So something needed to be done.
People did not send me here to talk, the people sent me here to do. So we took the executive action we did to stop the bleeding.
As we move forward, and we evaluate what we need to do three weeks from now in our fiscal year 2011 budget address, you all need to understand the context from which we operate.
Our citizens are already the most overtaxed in America. US mayors hear it all the time. You know that the public appetite for ever increasing taxes has reached an end.
So when we freeze $475 million in school aid, I am hearing the reverberations from school boards saying now you are just going to force us to raise taxes.
Well there is a 4% cap in place as you all know, yet school boards continue to give out raises which exceed that cap, just on salary. Not to mention the fact that most of them get no contribution towards the spiraling increase in health care benefits.
Now, we are going to reduce spending at the state level. And we are going to continue to reduce it because we have no choice but to do so. Our obligation to you is twofold. One, is to let you know that. So I’m’ letting you know that.
Second to work with the legislature to give you the tools helping you to reduce spending at the municipal level. Now the pension and benefit reform package that was passed unanimously in the senate this week begins to give you some of those tools.
But it is only a beginning.
Do we need to change some of the rules of arbitration to level the playing field to allow municipalities and school boards to have a more level sense of collective bargaining?
I think the evidence of ever increasing raises being given to public sector workers as a result of the arbitration system tells us that we do. [Applause From Mayors]
But you have to stand up and give the support to the legislators in this building to get them to do that. I can guarantee you this, that more pension and benefit reforms which I will consider arbitration reform to be one of them, are things that when they come to my desk, they will be signed. [Applause From Mayors]
Because we can no longer continue on a path where we say we are going to reduce spending at the state level but we are not going to give you any tools to do that at the municipal level and the school board level.
By the same token I am tired of hearing school superintendents and school board members complain that there are no other options than raising property taxes. There are other options.
You know, Marlboro, after a two year negotiation, they give a five year contract giving 4.5% annual salary increases to the teachers, with no contribution, zero contribution to health care benefits.
But I am sure there are people in Marlboro who have lost their jobs, who have had their homes foreclosed on, and who cannot keep a roof over their family’s head there is something wrong.
You know, at some point there has to be parity. There has to be parity between what is happening in the real world, and what is happening in the public sector world. The money does not grow on trees outside this building or outside your municipal building. It comes from the hard working people of our communities who are suffering and are hurting right now.
I heard someone in the legislature say two days ago that they wanted no fare hike in New Jersey Transit, no cuts in service, and no cuts in subsidy. And I was thinking to myself, man I should have made this guy treasurer. [Laughter] Because if you can pull that one off, you’re obviously magic.
This is the type of awful political rhetoric that people sent me to this city to stop.
I would love to be able to do that, but I can’t. I would love to tell you that municipal aid will stay level, but it’s not. And it’s not because we don’t have the money. So you need to prepare. You need to prepare for what’s coming down the line because we have no choice but to do these things.
And so we need to get honest with each other. In this instance, the political class,for which unfortunately all of us are a member of, the political class is lagging behind the public on this. The public is ready to hear that tough choices have to be made. They’re not going to like it. Don’t confuse the two. But they are ready to hear the truth.
In fact, they find it refreshing to hear the truth.
They are tired of hearing, don’t worry I can spare you from the pain, because they have been hearing that for a decade, as we have borrowed and spent and taxed our way into oblivion.
We have done every quick fix in the book that you can do. And now we are left, literally holding the bag.
Leadership should be about making tough decisions. I’m not hear to tell you that anything you are going to have to do as mayors, council people will be easy. But I firmly believe after spending the last year traveling around the state of New Jersey, talking to regular citizens, that this is what they are expecting us to do.
They are also expecting us to ferret out waste and abuse. But they also know that old song that waste and abuse is going to balance the budget is an old and tired one, and it’s not going to.
Now we are going to have a fight about COAH. And I have engaged in that fight and I have engaged in it directly. Not only will I be fighting COAH, I will be fighting the courts too. [Applause From Mayors]
We need to understand we are all in this together. And you know, all of you know in your heart, what I am saying is true. You all know that these raises that are being given to public employees of all stripes, we cannot afford. You all know the state cannot continue to spend money it does not have. And you all know that the appetite for tax increases among our constituents has come to an end.
And so the path to reform and success is clear. We know what it is. We just have to have the courage to go there. What we are doing is showing people that government can work again for them, not for us. Government has worked for the political class for much too long.
There’s no time left. We have no room left to borrow. We have no room left to tax. So we merely have room left now, to do this. We are all reaching the edge of a cliff. And it reminds me a bit of that part of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the had a seminal decision to make. So what did they do? They held hands and they jumped off the cliff.
We have to hold hands at every level of government, state county, municipal, school board. We have to hold hands and jump off the cliff.
I firmly believe we will land and we will be fine. It does not mean it will not be a scary ride on the way down. And it does not mean there won’t be moments of fear and moments of apprehension.
But for certain, the troops of the decades of overspending and overborrowing and overtaxing have gained on us. So the ruination of New Jersey’s economy, and of the quality of life we want all our citizens to have, is certain if we do not take this course.
It’s time for us to hold hands and jump off the cliff. It’s time for us to do the difficult things that need to be done and to stop playing the petty politics of yesterday, of lying to the people telling them they do not have to pay for it because someone else will.
We are going to make the leap because that’s what people elected me to do. We are going to make the leap because it is the responsible thing to do. We are going to make the leap and we are going to do it together because that is what leadership demands for us. That is what the responsibility of the offices we hold requires of us.
Forget about the next election. Forget about the next editorial in the newspaper, and forget about the next angry letter or phone call you are going to get from someone who wants something for nothing.
One thing is certain. The alternative will lead to certain defeat. And so it is time for us to show courage, and resolve. And we can do it because we are from New Jersey. And I have never, in all my travels around the country, met a group of tougher people than we all have the opportunity to lead.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone in NJ at the moment, and get their take on this.