After spending most of last year on the presidential campaign trail, Gov. Chris Christie returned to the New Jersey Statehouse on Tuesday to deliver a State of the State address that touted the state's improving economy while also calling for the lawmakers to eliminate the inheritance tax and invest over $100 million in mental health and drug treatment services.
During the 50-minute speech, the Republican leader also bashed Democratic lawmakers for proposing a constitutional amendment that would force the state to make quarterly payments into the public employee pension system, describing it as "the road to ruin."
He also unveiled a plan to transform an empty prison in Burlington County into a drug treatment facility for inmates.
"The state of New Jersey is strong and growing stronger every day," Christie said during the address, his sixth, before warning that tough choices remain and more progress is needed.
"Do we keep working to get things done and move New Jersey forward?" Christie said. "Or are we going to pander to special interests, and send New Jersey back to the old days?"
Although the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary election are just weeks away, Christie kept the annual address focused largely on New Jersey issues like the pension battle and economic recovery rather than national ones.
He did take a moment to attack the status quo in Washington D.C., saying Congress's response to some national challenges was "a lot of hot air" and that President Barack Obama's Tuesday night State of the Union speech "isn't a call to action, it's a fantasy wish list from a President who has failed us."
Christie, who has surged in New Hampshire and in some national polls in recent weeks, also answered some recent attacks from GOP presidential rivals, questioning his record as governor in the wake of New Jersey's slow economic recovery and credit downgrades.
He cited the state's falling unemployment rate, now at 5.3 percent, rising home sales and building permits, and a decline in foreclosures in each of New Jersey's counties.
"On our watch, New Jersey pulled back from the economic brink," he said.
He devoted substantial time to the issue of drug treatment, proposing to commit more than $100 million to mental health and substance abuse treatment. His plans include raising reimbursement rates for service providers and reopening Mid-State Correctional Facility on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst as a substance abuse treatment center for state prisoners.
The facility, located on more than 12 acres on the joint base, was built in 1972 and previously housed as many as 624 inmates before closing in June 2014.
Christie described the closure as a testimony to his administration's work reducing crime and recidivism and said reopening it as a treatment center was would help inmates transition to new lives when released from custody.
"The victims of addiction deserve treatment, whether they're re in the community or incarcerated. If we can break the cycle of addiction anywhere, we should break it," he said.
Christie, who has at time lauded his work with the Democratic majority in control of the state Legislature, directed some of his strongest rhetoric at those same lawmakers, challenging them to abolish the state's estate tax and to abandon a proposed constitutional amendment to make quarterly pension payments, saying it would require the state to raise the sales tax to 10 percent or raise income taxes 23 percent.
At one point, he asked the lawmakers gathered in the Assembly chambers to raise their hands if they voted in support of the amendment on Monday and support such an increase.
"New Jersey is watching," he said. "Let them see now, well in advance, how you are going to take their money from them to repay your union bosses."
Afterwards, Democratic leaders said they wouldn't given up on pushing for the amendment, which requires voter approval.
They cited the 2011 pension and benefits reform law that required most public employees to pay more toward their pension and health care in return for the government's promise that it would make escalating payments to the pension each year and the full actuarially-recommended payment by 2018
Christie has slashed the payment in each of the last three budgets, arguing that the state couldn't afford to make the scheduled payments and that additional benefit reforms are required to keep the pension system solvent.
"The ripple effect on our economy from the failure to pay that pension is dramatic and it must be paid. It's an obligation that must be fulfilled," Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, D-6th of Voorhees, said during a news conference after the speech.
Democratic Assemblymen Troy Singleton and Herb Conaway said they could support Christie's push to do more to address substance abuse and mental health, but they also noted the governor's failure to address the state's ailing Transportation Trust Fund, which is scheduled to run out of funding in July.
"The governor has been eerily quiet on our transportation infrastructure challenge," Singleton said. "Having a good and robust transportation network and infrastructure is critical to keeping our economy growing, so I'm disappointed the governor didn't share that same sentiment by making comments on it today."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-21st of Westfield, said Democrats' criticism was hollow since they have yet to offer their own specific plan for transportation funding.
"The only people who have put a specific plan together for the Transportation Trust Fund are the Senate Republicans," he said.
Conaway said he was very pleased by Christie's "strong commitment and articulation" on the challenges posed by mental illness and drug addiction.
"The state's healthcare infrastructure isn't up to the task to taking care of people that suffer from mental illness and that suffer with addiction. We've invested far too little in sources we can make available," Conaway said.
He said Christie's heated rhetoric about the pension amendment was misguided.
"The reason we're going to the ballot is because the bill he signed to deal with pension contribution that he agrees needs to be done, he didn't fund," Conaway said.
Burlington County's Republican legislators said the state needs to maintain the financial discipline that Christie has demanded from the state's government.
"For the benefit of New Jersey families, we need to continue on the path that has lifted New Jersey out of the recession," Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, R-8th of Evesham, said Tuesday. "Financial discipline and sound economic decisions have been the key to bringing jobs back to the state, and we need to continue to keep a tight hold on state spending to continue the momentum.”
Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, R-8th of Evesham, said the call for tax relief needs to be heeded.
“The high taxes in this state continue to burden families and retirees, forcing many to give up on New Jersey and move away," she said. "We will continue to press for consistent efforts to cut taxes and provide badly needed relief to New Jersey families. Tax relief is critical to maintaining the growth that has added a quarter-million private sector jobs to our economy.”