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Christie’s Call For Pension Concessions Sets Up Budget Battle With Sweeney

Ironically, Christie’s troubles with Bridgegate may make him more likely to push to cut the pension payments or exact further concessions from the unions.

“If his presidential hopes go up in smoke, he’s going to realize that he’s going to be here in Trenton for four years, and he’s the one who will have to make all of those payments, which he’s not going to want to do,” one veteran Statehouse labor observer commented.

A Change in Tone

Christie’s bombshell on pensions came toward the end of a State of the State speech that was more subdued than his usual major speeches, undoubtedly because the ongoing Bridgegate scandal demanded a different tone. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Christie’s speech was “flat because he couldn’t go after his political enemies with one-liners the way he usually does.” Christie was less animated than usual; there was none of his trademark bravado; and while he touted his bipartisan accomplishments working with the Democratic Legislature, this time he did not suggest that partisan Washington had a lot to learn from the way things are done in Trenton.

Further, the initiatives contained in this fourth State of the State speech were more modest than usual, in striking contrast to his first speech in 2011 when he memorably declared, “It’s time to do the big things.” Except for the longer school day and extended school year, most of his initiatives, including a constitutional amendment allowing bail to be denied to violent offenders, were leftover ideas that had failed to gain approval from the Democratic-controlled Legislature in previous sessions.

But Christie knew that most people following his speech were not listening for new initiatives.

The most closely watched lines in Christie’s speech came at the very beginning, when, as expected, he made an apology that undoubtedly was nowhere in his speech before the publication last Wednesday of emails showing that Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in the Governor’s Office, had ordered the closures of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge for four days in an apparent act of retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie.

“The last week has certainly tested this administration,” Christie acknowledged. “Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better. Much better. I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch -- both good and bad.

“Without a doubt,” Christie promised, “we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.”

Christie’s use of the word “appropriate” raised immediate concerns among Democratic legislative leaders, who wondered whether the special investigative committees being equipped with subpoena powers tomorrow under the leadership of Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Weinberg would be deemed “appropriate” by the governor.

“I hope the governor is not trying to send us a message by parsing his words,” Wisniewski said. “We will use our subpoena powers in pursuit of the truth wherever it leads.”

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