martes, 22 de febrero de 2011

For Christie, Ailing Economy at Home May Test His Allure

In a year as governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie has captivated conservatives across the nation, with an in-your-face frankness and nonstop aggressiveness that few have seen from a chief executive.
Last week, his swaggering talk — about tackling the really big problems, taming unions and cutting a ballooning deficit without raising taxes — earned him a hero’s welcome in Washington, where journalists pressed him on his presidential aspirations.

But while it is clear that Mr. Christie, 48, a Republican, has already upended the status quo, putting powerful interest groups on the defensive, and all but having his way with a Democratic-controlled Legislature, the challenges of the coming year could cinch his reputation as a political superstar — or puncture it.

Without question, Mr. Christie, who is proposing his budget on Tuesday, has torn into the financial problems he faced with gusto. He has cut spending, limited taxes, forced government workers to give more and get less, and insisted on legislative reforms that could put the state on a firmer footing.

His biggest tests, indeed, are not likely to come from New Jersey’s public-sector unions, which appear almost cowed compared with their counterparts in Wisconsin, where labor protests have brought government skidding to a halt. Mr. Christie, after all, has invested energy in turning public opinion against those public-sector workers.

Yet his agenda of balancing the budget, rescuing a pension fund that could go broke within a decade and curtailing rising property taxes — the holy grail of politics in his heavily suburban state — is far from achieved. And he still could face the wrath of voters who discover that the costs of government have merely been shifted onto their local tax bills.

“People have heard the tough talk, but they haven’t felt the full effect of what he’s done,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “That may happen in the next year. And voters tell us that if their property taxes don’t go down, they will hold him responsible.”

In his first year, Governor Christie closed a yawning budget deficit that he estimated at almost $11 billion, though in part by skipping a $3 billion payment to the pension system. At $29.4 billion, spending is down more than $5 billion from its peak two years earlier.

In proposing his budget on Tuesday, the governor is expected to call for more cuts to close another huge deficit. With major union contracts set to expire in June, he is calling for a wage freeze, which polls show the public supports.

But the state will still be deeply in debt, and facing a growing shortfall in its pension fund — $54 billion and counting — that helped spur a downgrade of the state’s bonds.

Much of the effort to reduce benefits, shore up retiree funds and require workers to contribute more for their benefits began under Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the Democrat whom Mr. Christie ousted in 2009.

But comparisons with his predecessors make Mr. Christie look only more formidable.

From the moment he took over, Mr. Christie has flexed more of the muscle of New Jersey’s strong governorship, and with greater evident glee, than any recent occupant.

The state has a thick layer of unelected authorities, for example, with responsibilities like operating sports arenas and overseeing sewage. Governors can void their actions merely by vetoing the minutes of their meetings, something Mr. Christie did more often in his first four weeks than Mr. Corzine did in four years.

“It gained him a high degree of public trust,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “People figured, he’s watching our tax dollars.” Mr. Christie’s office also took over contract talks with highway toll collectors, threatening to privatize their jobs, and he capped school superintendents’ salaries, forcing two out of three to take pay cuts.

When the teachers’ union resisted his demands for a wage freeze, he persuaded voters to defeat hundreds of school budgets. And he got nearly everything he wanted in the budget negotiations last year, making the deepest cuts in generations.

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