Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Christie Makes Bid for Relevance in Final Session

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Christie Makes Bid for Relevance in Final Session

Article excerpt

Gov. Chris Christie made it clear Wednesday that he wants to add one final chapter to his legacy before he leaves office in six weeks to write his memoir.

Christie urged the Democrats who dominate both houses of the Legislature to push through a second, explosive round of union benefit givebacks in the final stretch of the lame-duck session, when outgoing lawmakers have nothing to lose and an outgoing Republican governor is willing to take the heat.

"My argument to Democrats all along has been: 'Do it while I'm here and blame it on me,' " Christie said at a news conference downstairs from his temporary West State Street office, where he rolled out the final report of the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission.

"I took [the blame] in 2011 that way, and I would be more than happy to take it right now if they wanted," Christie said, referring to the landmark clash with public employee unions, a powerful Democratic Party constituency.

Christie said the Democrats now have a "pure political opportunity" to enact the panel's recommendations, which called for cutting health benefits for state and local government employees by $4 billion and using the savings to fund their retirements.

There was a time when Christie didn't have to offer his services for hire. In his first term, Christie could dictate the terms of debate with every utterance or tongue-lashing. He bashed the unions with impunity. He delivered angry jeremiads on bloated worker benefits with a bombast and zeal that made him a hero to national Republican Party audiences around the country.

But on Wednesday, Christie's call to arms for another round of painful restructuring of benefits was met with a shrug. While no one should ever count out Christie as long as he has a grip on the levers of power, the idea of a frenzied, last-minute dash to restructure the benefits in six weeks seems unlikely.

At times, Christie even conceded as much Wednesday, given that his successor is Phil Murphy, the Monmouth County Democrat who was elected with unanimous and fulsome support of public employee unions.

Murphy is going to have to confront the challenge of closing a $90 billion unfunded liability and preventing some of the pension funds — the teachers' fund, especially — from going broke in 10 years. But it's a task he'll have to do in conjunction with a Democratic-controlled Legislature that is "owned lock, stock and barrel" by the unions, Christie said.

"I don't know, politically, some of the positions that the governor-elect has taken, how he intends to deal with it," Christie said.

But the response to Christie's offer was muted at best. Sweeney, itching for revenge after the NJEA spent nearly $9 million in an unsuccessful bid to knock him out of office in November, is perhaps Christie's most obvious ally in a last-minute benefits overhaul. After all, Sweeney was Christie's chief collaborator in the 2011 reforms. …

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