On the heels of his state address calling for a "New Jersey Comeback," Gov. Chris Christie continued that theme at a town-hall style meeting in Westfield Wednesday morning where he reinforced his stance on property taxes, pension and health benefit reforms and brighter days for the state's families and workforce.
More than 600 people filled the in Westfield to listen to the governor. Westfield is friendly terrain for Christie, who was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd. The governor noted his closest political advisors Bill Palatucci and Mike DuHaime live in town. His former chief of staff, Rich Bagger, is also a Westfield resident, as are Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.
"While the 'New Jersey Comeback' is starting, it's not here just yet," Christie said, adding that he hopes to hasten its arrival by cutting spending and putting money back in residents' pockets.
"I proposed in the State of the State Address (Jan. 17) that we cut income taxes on everybody in New Jersey by 10 percent over the next three years," he said, to ample applause from the audience.
Christie said since New Jerseyans have all made the sacrifice, they should all reap the benefit, which he anticipates will provide relief to struggling families and small businesses. The governor also said he would restore the earned income tax credit for working families.
During his 25-minute speech, Christie touted some of his accomplishments over the past two years, including the pension and health benefit reform legislation he signed into law last June.
According to a document the governor's office handed out to the crowd, "pension reform alone will offer New Jersey taxpayers a savings of more than $120 billion over the next 30 years and an additional $3.1 billion over the next decade from health benefits reform." The same document estimated Westfield's savings this year alone to be $874,489 as a result of the reforms.
Before taking office, Christie said New Jersey's property taxes had increased 70 percent in 10 years. In July 2010, Christie created a 2 percent cap on property taxes, which he said is the first step toward "lasting property tax reform" in the Garden State.
At the end of his speech, the governor turned the microphone over to the crowd and heard questions from less than a dozen attendees but not before offering some caveats.
"We're all from New Jersey," he joked. "If you give it, you're going to get it right back."
Questions from the crowd centered around group homes, education reform, anti-bullying and cutting income tax.
Residents from Woodbridge and Cranford separately expressed concern regarding the task force that Christie put in place late last summer to consider closing some of the state’s seven centers for the developmentally disabled.
Christie acknowledged that it is difficult to have a "dispassionate discussion about a passionate issue" but went on to say that the first goal of the task force is to ensure that life is protected and the second is to maximize the potential of each life in the "most humane and compassionate" way possible. He said the decision is not a budgetary one and said every dollar saved by closing institutions would go toward reinvesting in group homes or other surroundings that would maximize each individual's potential.
A resident from Somerset questioned the accountability of officials within the Franklin Township school system, to which Christie said "we need to start holding everyone in the system accountable for results." He said he has been falsely portrayed in the past as being only concerned with test results. While he believes test results should equal about one-third of the equation, peer and adminstrator reviews are other key components in the evaluation of a teacher's performance, he said.
Christie also fielded a question from anti-bullying activist and Westfield resident who asked the governor if he supported the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. The law came under fire in late January when it was deemed unconstitutional by a state panel because the law didn't provide funding for schools to satisfy the new rules.
Christie said he will "not allow this law to go away." Saying it "got support on both sides of the aisle," he noted there are still between six and eight weeks left "to get it fixed."
"I will not allow the law we signed to go down," he said.
An audience member asked Christie his opinion on a bill passed Jan. 30 by an Assembly panel at the urging of dentists that would require water companies in New Jersey to add fluoride to the water supply, something the attendee likened to drinking sunscreen to protect one's skin. The governor said he is "skeptical" of the bill.
For the final question of the meeting, Christie turned to the crowd seated behind him on risers. Early in Christie's talk, the backdrop holding drapes and banners nearly toppled onto those seated in that section and the governor said it seemed only right to take a question from that area as they were almost struck.
In his comment, the attendee, who is currently out of work, said that cutting income tax really offered him "diddlysquat." Christie took this question as a chance to address job growth in the state.
"New Jersey needs to become more business-friendly in order to prevent companies from leaving to do business in more affordable states such as Pennsylvania, Delaware and North Carolina," he said. "Not only do we want to create jobs to go in the buildings, we want to create jobs by building the buildings."
Concluding the town hall meeting, Christie's sixth in the past seven weeks, he said he saw a former high school classmate in the audience as well as an old colleague from his days in Cranford.
"People come here and they stay here," he said about the Garden State. "It's because of our shared history, who we are as a people, what we want for our children and our granchildren, what it has been and what it can be."