Gov. Christie pitched his plan to cap property-tax increases to a standing-room-only crowd in Greenwich Township Wednesday, urging residents to call their legislators to show their support for a constitutional amendment.
While several audience members asked pointed questions of the governor, he received an overwhelmingly warm reception from those at Greenwich Township Elementary School.
The governor took aim numerous times at public employees, particularly teachers' unions. He argued that they have been shielded from the difficult realities of the economy, and that they should share in the sacrifice with everyone else. Many in the audience heartily applauded.
The Gloucester County event was the governor's seventh town hall meeting statewide to pitch his proposal to cap property-tax increases, and his first in South Jersey.
Christie is proposing a constitutional amendment, which would require voter approval, to cap property-tax increases at 2.5 percent annually. Town officials who wished to exceed the cap would be required to seek approval from voters.
The only exception would be for debt service. New Jerseyans pay the highest average property taxes in the nation.
Christie said that to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot in time for the November election, it has to clear the Legislature in the next few weeks.
Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County has a counterproposal that calls for a 2.9 percent cap but with more exceptions than are allowed under the current cap of 4 percent, including pension contributions and health-care costs.
Christie argued that over the years, politicians of both parties have failed to get at the root of the state's property-tax problem, which he said is how much money government spends.
The governor argued that a constitutional amendment would result in "permanent tax relief that can't be erased by a legislature or a governor." He said his proposal would let voters decide whether a property tax increase above 2.5 percent was necessary.
Contrasting his proposal with Sweeney's, the governor said, "The real core difference is who decides property taxes - you or politicians in Trenton."
Jennifer Cavallaro, vice president of the Swedesboro-Woolwich Board of Education, told the governor that her school district was struggling to make ends meet despite taking many steps to cut costs, including having teachers contribute toward their health-care costs, because of explosive growth in the student population. She said state aid has not kept up.
Christie said he agreed that the school funding formula was not working and said that was the reason he was working on changing the makeup of the Supreme Court, a theme he touched on several times throughout the event, which lasted more than two hours.
Beverly Marinelli, who identified herself as a resident of Burlington County, applauded the governor and said that with him in office, "for the first time in a good many years I see a glimmer of hope."
Marinelli asked what the governor would do about the state's disproportionate funding of the former Abbott school districts, the poorest districts that have been guaranteed additional funding by the state Supreme Court.
Christie said his budget cut each school district's funding by about 5 percent, and reiterated that he was working on changing the Supreme Court to better reflect his own views of where the state should be headed. In May, Christie announced he would not renominate Justice John E. Wallace Jr.
He said he does not oppose spending money on the former Abbott schools but objects to their lack of results.
One Gibbstown resident told the governor he called his office periodically to tell him, "Don't give up." Another attendee thanked Christie for "beginning to turn Trenton upside down."
Christie was characteristically feisty, particularly toward some teachers who asked questions. At one point, a retired teacher who had raised a question about the governor's decision not to renominate Wallace to the Supreme Court seemed to irk Christie, who urged her to get to her point and ask a question.
"I don't like to be made fun of," the woman said.
Outside the school, Gloucester County teachers protested the governor's cuts to education with signs urging passing drivers to honk if they supported education.
JoAnne Gayeski, president of the Paulsboro Education Association, said her members wanted to send a message to the governor about the "awful cuts he's given to public education, shortchanging all the students."
Inside, Christie joked that he would return to South Jersey any time he was invited: "I'm like a bad relative - if you invite me, I show up."