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Christie, New Jersey legislative leaders trade harsh words

TRENTON - For weeks, Gov. Christie has been aiming his famously barbed rhetoric down the hall of the Capitol, blaming the Democratic-led Legislature for stalling progress on his 33-bill property-tax overhaul package.

TRENTON - For weeks, Gov. Christie has been aiming his famously barbed rhetoric down the hall of the Capitol, blaming the Democratic-led Legislature for stalling progress on his 33-bill property-tax overhaul package.

At a news conference on Monday, the governor gathered reporters and spoke past them, directing at lawmakers some of his harshest comments yet.

"It's time to act," he said at an appearance in New Jersey between numerous campaign stops for other Republicans across the country in recent weeks. "This is not complicated. It's time to stop all the blather and to put bills up on the board and make people push the red button or the green button, go on record. Where are you? Are you with the taxpayer of the state of New Jersey or are you with the special interests that roam these hallways?"

On Thursday, Democratic leaders responded with a news conference of their own, announcing new legislation on arbitration changes, one of the issues Christie has been highlighting. The Democrats argued that they had indeed made considerable progress on property-tax changes and that Christie should not mislead the public into believing that his plan alone would solve the state's property-tax crisis.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) also took the opportunity to call the governor's attacks on the Legislature childish and unproductive.

"You know how silly it is?" Sweeney asked. "Let's knock off the garbage. Let's knock off the silliness. Maybe in Iowa and Ohio and California that makes for great headlines."

The rancorous tone of the back-and-forth comments hint at a clear change in mood in Trenton in recent weeks.

In the early months of the Christie administration, the Republican governor worked with the Legislature to adopt pension and benefits changes and pass a budget, among other measures. And just weeks ago, Christie praised Sweeney at a campaign event in California, with the governor saying he was "fortunate to have a really good partner in our Senate president," according to an account in the Star-Ledger of Newark.

But lately, that collegiality has disappeared.

On his property-tax plan - described as a "tool kit" to help local officials cut costs - Christie said Monday: "All I keep hearing from the Legislature is 'Oh, we're working on it, we're working on it.' They must be doing it in secret, because I'm not seeing it."

"This is the kind of obstructionism that we were able to avoid in the first seven months of this administration," he said.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), who was a particular target of the governor's ire this week (Christie said Monday he was "dumbfounded" as to why Oliver "continues to do nothing" on affordable housing), said in an interview that she was "really stunned at the level of acrimony in the governor's remarks, but I just think the governor is a very spontaneous communicator."

She added that she had grown accustomed to the governor's way of speaking and that she was not offended.

Sweeney, who by all accounts had enjoyed a good working relationship with the governor, was the subject of two e-mail messages to reporters Monday from Christie's ever-prolific press office.

The e-mails noted that Sweeney had previously said the tool-kit bills needed to be done, and that he believed they would be passed by September.

Sweeney's press office responded with a counter "flashback" news release, citing a news article that said Sweeney and Christie had agreed the tool kit would be finished by the end of the year.

Sweeney said in an interview that he had had enough of the governor's theatrics and that he was moving ahead with the property-tax legislation.

"Gov. Christie is ranting and raving because he doesn't want anybody to recognize that his administration caused taxes to go up. . . . He promised he wouldn't cut school aid [or] municipal aid, [and] that he was going to pay [into] the pension [system]. I've had enough of hearing how he closed an $11 billion budget gap. That is absolutely untrue."

Both houses of the Legislature have made progress on many of the less controversial bills in the tool kit. But the governor is seeking quick action on four particularly thorny issues: civil service changes, affordable housing, mandate relief, and arbitration changes. The Legislature has done some work on those but has not approved bills on those issues.

Among the events that may have precipitated the current cold front was the investigation by the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee into why the state lost out on $400 million in federal "Race to the Top" school aid. As part of its investigation, the committee subpoenaed fired Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who then testified that Christie had rejected a compromise negotiated by Schundler with the teachers union in part because he did not want to be seen as caving to the union.

On the same day that Schundler was testifying before the committee, Christie called a last-minute news conference to announce that he was canceling a long-planned rail tunnel to connect New Jersey and Manhattan.

Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), who chairs the oversight committee, said it seemed "rather strategic and somewhat suspect that the timing was right in the middle of my hearing."

Still, Buono seemed to take the governor's harsh words in stride.

"The governor is very good at attacking," Buono said. "That's what he does best. He goes on the attack, and he may think that is a good governing philosophy, but I don't agree. I just sort of ignore it and continue to do my job."

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the Legislature needed to move more quickly on the tool-kit bills, since the 2 percent property-tax cap adopted this year takes effect Jan. 1. Without the tool-kit bills, the administration argues, towns will be forced to slash jobs and services.

"Time is a-wasting," Drewniak said. "We're obviously at a most critical point. We can't just move on the edges; we have to move on the substance and get this done."

Sweeney said he and his colleagues were doing just that.

"I honestly believe that if the governor wants real reform, we've given it to him," Sweeney said. "If he wants sound bites and if he wants to fight, that's up to him. We wanted to do real reform, and we've done it."