New Jersey is beginning to turn a corner.
Gov. Chris Christie opened his 19th town hall of 2011 in Toms River today with a half-hour speech that began with that sentiment, as he outlined a familiar "reform agenda" that emphasized the steps he felt were necessary to repair an underfunded pension system, troubled education results and taxpayers' property tax burden.
"New Jersey is beginning to turn a corner. I can feel it, hope you can feel it too. In 2009, when I was elected, we were going through some of the toughest times we had seen in this state," Christie said.
He said those tough times were a result of a poor economy, but also poor decisions.
There was a 322 percent increase in state spending from 1990 to 2010, Christie said. "That's the equivalent of spending 16 percent more a year, every year," he said. "No family would do that, increasing their spending 16 percent ever year. No family can survive that."
Seniors, new families and businesses were fleeing New Jersey for places they can afford to live, Christie said. "It's not right," he said. "They don't have to leave a state they were born and raised in to be able to afford a house."
Compare that to June 2011. Christie said job growth has improved over the last few months."Instead of a downturn, we are on the upswing," he said. " We cannot change course now."
Strong applause followed most of the governor's comments and answers to audience questions. The crowd was diverse in the questions it brought, hoping the governor would address the Atlantic City tourism district, teacher performance, veterans services for South Jersey and the tax burden for individuals and businesses.
He was speaking to an audience of mostly middle-aged and older adults wearing suits, tank tops, National Guard fatigues or veterans insignias. The governor was not faced with the opposition that turned out for earlier town halls. Protesters were absent outside the facility as doors opened at 2 p.m. through the end of the program, around 5 p.m.
One audience member brought hand-made signs supporting Christie, while others' intentions were known by the political bumper stickers of vehicles that packed the neighboring Winding River Ice Skating Rink.
The town hall, held at Toms River's armory, saw more than 250 attendees to the standing-room only event, listening politely and with supportive claps to standing ovations for tax reforms that Christie outlined before taking questions from the audience.
The agenda: cut spending, provide tax relief, provide stability for New Jersey's businesses and economy and reward excellent teachers and fire ineffective ones.
The governor called a 2 percent cap on increasing tax levies a success. The measure forced local government and school boards to present budgets increasing by 2 percent or less.
"We can say in towns across New Jersey taxes went up less than 2 percent," he said to strong applause.
Christie pointed to Democratic legislators and the state teachers' union as opponents to the reform agenda.
He said that recent New Jersey Education Association television ads have nothing to do with education and instead were a product of hate.
"They are hoping you'll hate me, and the discussion on education will just go away," he said.
Christie's continued battle with Democratic legislators was brought up early in his speech, as the governor referenced a Star-Ledger report that Democrats were beginning to consider raising taxes."I didn't fight for the last 17 months to have lower taxes to give in now," he said.
'We Agree With Him'
In the audience: Toms River Township Councilman Gregory McGuckin, who is also running for state Assembly. Republican McGuckin said Christie came to an overwhelmingly supportive area.
"Christie won Toms River by 12,000 votes, he won Ocean County by 70,000 votes," McGuckin said. "The people in Ocean County, in Toms River, we agree with him."
McGuckin said he supported many of the governor's reforms. "He's proposing solutions. You don't hear too many people doing that."
However, in a news release distributed after the town hall, Bette Wary, 10th District Democratic candidate for state Assembly, said the governor shows "continuing inconsistency concerning public officials who take advantage of a pension loophole that permits elected officials to collect a pension while continuing to draw a paycheck from the same job."
She said she was disappointed Christie had yet to address local Republicans she said are taking advantage of the loophole, namely, Ocean County Freeholder Joseph Vicari and 10th District Republican Assemblyman James Holzapfel. Wary said the governor managed to scold Democratic Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and north Jersey Sen. Loretta Weinberg for collecting both a salary as well as a pension based on the same job.
“What we are seeing here is clear partisan politics,” said Wary. “The governor is attacking Democrats for using this loophole, but giving the Ocean County Republicans a pass for doing the same thing."
Former Toms River Mayor Paul Brush hoped the governor would address the creation of quasi-government authorities for such things as municipal utilities or parking authorities, who operate by appointments and govern their own budgets without much public input.
Brush, who is running as a Democrat for Toms River mayor this year, agreed the audience was a very friendly one to Christie.
"There was nobody really challenging him," Brush said.
Christie ended the town hall with an explanation of what he said was often a brash delivery of his opinions.
"People say I'm angry, but it's not that. I feel I am the luckiest man alive, to be the governor of the state I grew up in," he said.
He told a story of how his ailing mother told him there was nothing left unsaid between them."That's made me who I am," he said.
As was the format for previous town halls, Christie left the back half of the event for audience questions.
John Dorrity, director of Veteran Services in Ocean County, was there to fight for veterans’ rights.
“The ‘Vet is a Vet is a Vet’ bill has been sitting untouched in the Legislature for almost 20 years,” Dorrity said. “I am hoping that Governor Christie can finally push them to do something about it.”
Dorrity was able to ask Christie to address his concerns during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting. Christie responded that he will try but the Legislature is too divided and it would be difficult to pass, and Dorrity said he was not surprised.
“I kind of expected the answer I got, but I’m still going to push the issue and hopefully we can get it passed,” he said after the meeting.
Some of the people at the Town Hall meeting had their own concerns about issues in the state.
“I support Governor Christie, but I am a little upset because he wants to get rid of NJN,” Brick resident Pat Dooley said. “Also, I am a former state worker, and I think putting a maximum cap – or removing altogether – payouts for unused sick days is a real solution the state needs to consider.” Dooley suggested capping the payouts at $15,000 for state workers.
Still another attendee asked the Governor about an issue that hit very close to home for her – the Adoptee Birthright bill still sitting on Christie’s desk. Virginia Makitra, a Barnegat resident, asked Christie what his plans were regarding the bill, since he had until just June 23 to make a decision.
He explained to her that he hadn’t yet decided what he would do, but he will definitely decide by the deadline.
“Releasing these records could be the difference between life and death for some people who have been adopted and cannot find their birth parents,” Makitra said, alluding to possible hereditary health problems for adoptees who do not know their family’s medical history. “I have been waiting 31 years for something like this, so I really hope he passes it.”