June 15, 2011 for The Associated Press
by Josh Lederman

PRINCETON, N.J. – A bipartisan deal reached Wednesday to require public employees to pay more for health and pension benefits will be a building block for creating an affordable New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said.

The Republican governor and the Democratic and Republican leadership in the Legislature issued a rare joint statement Wednesday evening announcing consensus on a bill that is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday. Minutes later, Christie told business leaders in Princeton that the deal represented politicians choosing to shun partisan bickering in favor of doing the job they were elected to do.

“In New Jersey, you see honest, principled disagreement with leaders of different opinions coming together to find common ground to fix the big things that plague our state,” Christie said. “I have to commend (both parties) for their leadership and for their extraordinary work in coming to this agreement.”

Christie said he expects the bill introduced by Senate President Stephen Sweeney to move quickly through committee on Thursday and be passed by the full Assembly by June 23.

The agreement followed months of a rancorous struggle with public workers unions over a plan to increase employee contributions for pension and health benefits. Christie and Sweeney have been pushing to override the collective bargaining process by legislating contribution increases, but the bill lacked support from Democratic leadership in the Assembly.

Union leaders have balked, and earlier Wednesday, the largest teachers union released a television advertisement alleging Sweeney was trying to protect a friend who owns an insurance brokerage that handles public worker health plans. Unions have planned a protest for Thursday morning — just as the Senate will be considering the legislation.

“What this legislation will do is simply to save the pension system for all those retirees and public employees who are counting on that retirement,” Christie said. “It will save and protect the taxpayer and it will restore choice and fairness to a public sector system that had run completely out of control.”

Christie spoke to a group of about 500 business owners, executives and government leaders at the Employer Legislative Committees State Dinner, hosted by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. The association has supported Christie’s efforts to make the state more business-friendly and backed his decision in May to pull the state out of a regional greenhouse gas reduction pact.

Christie touted steps his administration has taken its first 17 months to strengthen New Jersey’s economic climate and encourage business growth. He said they included a one-sixth reduction in the size of the state budget, consistent private sector job growth since January 2011 and a 2 percent cap on property tax increases.

He also said no state had dropped as many public employees from the payroll in the past year as New Jersey — another point likely to irk the unions he’s battling over benefits reform.

“It’s not that these things are easy or that these things are instantly popular,” Christie said. “Our job is not to follow the public opinion polls. It is to mold and change the public opinion through our conduct.”

Christie, who has built a national brand as a tough-talking, no-nonsense conservative, reflected on the charges levied by his critics that he bullies others into letting him have his way.

“I recognize that at times my approach has had to be, based on the challenges ahead of us, very blunt, very direct, and at times angry,” said the governor who Republicans nationwide are begging to run for president. “I was never willing to swallow my principles.”