The Wall Street Journal's James Freeman writes on the remarkable efforts of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to transform the state:
Christie is on a mission to make New Jersey competitive once again in the contest to attract people and capital. During last fall's campaign, while his opponent obliquely criticized Mr. Christie's size, some Republicans worried that their candidate was squishy—that he wasn't serious about cutting spending and reining in taxes. Turns out they were wrong. Listen to Mr. Christie's take on the state of his state: "We are, I think, the failed experiment in America—the best example of a failed experiment in America—on taxes and bigger government. Over the last eight years, New Jersey increased taxes and fees 115 times." New Jersey's residents now suffer under the nation's highest tax burden. Yet the tax hikes haven't come close to matching increases in spending. Mr. Christie recently introduced a $29.3 billion state budget to eliminate a projected $11 billion deficit for fiscal year 2011. California and New York have attracted headlines for their budget woes. Yet, as Mr. Christie points out, "Their problems are much smaller than ours as a percentage. [Gov.] David Paterson's talking about an $8.2 billion deficit in New York—I only wish." After taking office in January, Mr. Christie declared an official state of emergency. This allowed him to freeze $2.2 billion in spending that had already been authorized. Now he needs a Democratic legislature to turn his freeze into an actual cut and to enact the deeper reductions contained in his 2011 budget. . . .
"I'm a product of public schools in New Jersey," Mr. Christie explains, "and I have great admiration for people who commit their lives to teaching, but this isn't about them. This is about a union president who makes $265,000 a year, and her executive director who makes $550,000 a year. This is about a union that has been used to getting its way every time. And they have intimidated governors for the last 30 years." While the state lost 121,000 jobs last year, education jobs in local school districts soared by more than 11,000.
Over the past eight years, according to Mr. Christie, K-12 student enrollment has increased 3% while education jobs have risen by more than 16%. The governor believes cuts in aid to local schools in his budget could be entirely offset if existing teachers would forgo scheduled raises and agree to pay 1.5% of their medical insurance bill for one year, just as new state employees will be required to do every year. A new Rasmussen poll found that 65% of New Jersey voters agree with him about a one-year pay freeze for teachers. But the teachers union wants to close the budget gap by raising the income tax rate on individuals and small businesses making over $400,000 per year to 10.75% from its current 8.97%. Mr. Christie doesn't think that state and local budget problems can be fixed without tackling education spending. That's because the state has a hybrid system in which local property taxes fund schools and some of the money is redistributed by the state from affluent areas to poorer communities. According to Mr. Christie, New Jersey taxpayers are spending $22,000 per student in the Newark school system, yet less than a third of these students graduate, proving that more money isn't the answer to better performance. He favors more student choice is, which is why he's ramping up approvals for charter schools. On another front, Mr. Christie is seeking a ballot measure this fall that would amend the state's constitution to limit increases in local property taxes to 2.5% annually. To put this question before voters he needs to win over three-fifths of the state legislature and expects legislators to vote in May or June. Will New Jersey send a message across the country that state government can be turned around without federal bailouts? "We're such a long way away from a message," Mr. Christie says, "because, you know, the message might be, 'Look at that poor SOB. There he is lying dead on State Street in Trenton. It's over. OK, everybody back to our corners and let's go back to the normal game.' . . . I hope, that if we're successful, [the message] can be . . . that you can do this."