Gov. Chris Christie tackled his administration’s current "Bridgegate" turmoil in his State-of-the-State speech Tuesday in Trenton, saying “mistakes were clearly made” and he bears ultimate responsibility.
Christie addressed the ongoing investigations into the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, which last week resulted in the firing of a top-level aide and the implication of another, in the first lines of his speech delivered to the 216th Legislature in the Assembly chambers in Trenton.
“We let down the people we are entrusted to serve,’’ Christie said. “I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch – both good and bad.”
Christie said his administration would cooperate with “all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.’’
The Christie administration has been rocked in the past week by revelations that former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly presided over the closure of lanes to the George Washington Bridge, causing gridlock for four days in the neighboring town of Fort Lee, as a form of political retaliation.
Both houses of the legislature plan to convene special committees to investigate the incident, which also has resulted in the departure of top-level executives of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
A separate, federal probe also has been announced to investigate the governor’s Stronger-than-the-Storm television advertisements, which used federal money to promote the Jersey Shore following Hurricane Sandy. Critics say the ads were equivalent to re-election ads for Christie, whose family was prominently featured.
In his speech, Christie mostly struck a congenial tone, emphasizing bipartisan accomplishments in his first term as a blueprint for the second.
Christie cited four balanced budgets, pension and tenure reform and a property tax cap as evidence of bipartisan accomplishments.
“The best part of our turnaround in these past four years is because we have chosen to work together,” Christie said. “We acted and we acted together.”
Speaking to the state Legislature, Christie asked that an interest arbitration cap that was passed in his first term be made permanent, saying that the cap had helped stem the rise of property taxes.
He pointed to the consolidation of the borough and the Township of Princeton as a model for more efficient government, resulting in a net tax reduction.
Christie called for an elimination of the cash-out of accrued sick time, something the governor called a “billion dollar albatross." He asked the Legislature to adopt a “Zero means Zero” plan.
“Sick time should be used when you are
sick, and if you are lucky enough to be healthy, that should be your reward,’’
The governor praised the performance of New Jersey's schools, while saying that some are still underperforming. He said the same about teachers.
“While the vast majority of teachers are performing well, some are not and they should be removed from our classrooms,’’ Christie said.
In Camden, Christie said, the public school system graduated only three college-ready high school seniors.
“That’s obscene and unacceptable,” Christie said
Saying the current school calendar is not reflective of the times, the governor’s proposal to lengthen school days and the school year is expected to be short on details, which he promises to deliver to the legislature soon.
“Our school calendar is antiquated both educationally and culturally,’’ Christie said. “Life in 2014 demands something more for our students. It is time to lengthen both the school day and the school year in New Jersey.’’
Students in New Jersey are required to attend school 180 days a year, although some districts extend that, and some charter schools also extend the school days or school years to help students catch up.
Christie then turned to crime, citing the recent slaying of a Toms River native and Hoboken lawyer doing Christmas shopping at the Short Hills mall.
Christie made a pitch to passing reforms on bail procedures. Christie champions an amendment that would keep “dangerous criminals off the street and in jail until trial.’’
“Let us work together to pass bail reform in 2014,’’ Christie said.
Christie introduced Craig Hanlon, who attended the speech, who at 16 years old was in jail as a drug addict, but has turned his life around with the help of the drug court system, which Christie hailed as a huge success with an 11 percent drop in recidivism in drug-related crimes in New Jersey.
“No life is disposable,” Christie said.
Christie proposed expanding the program with a $500,000 grant program
to set up a jobs programs for
those in the drug court program.
Christie then turned to the rebuilding of the Jersey Shore following Hurricane Sandy. Christie reiterated his commitment to a full rebuilding of Jersey Shore homes and businesses, something that has been a hallmark of Christie speeches since the storm.
“I will not rest until every person hurt by Sandy has their life back,’’ Christie said. “That is my mission.’’
Christie said a little less than 73 percent of the housing recovery money spent has gone to low- or middle-income families.
“And we’re proud of that,’’ he said.
Christie finished his speech by forcefully calling for pension reform – a call he has repeated several times in his tenure. The pension contribution and debt service, he said, takes about $1 billion out of the state’s budget.
“That’s nearly $1 billion we can spend on education,’’ he said. “That we can’t invest in infrastructure improvement. That we can’t use to put more cops on the street.”
Christie said the “time to avoid this conversation and these choices is nearly over,’’ and called for the state Legislature to adopt an “attitude of choice.’’
“The results from our refusal to choose – a weaker New Jersey with a
middle class burdened by even higher taxes. That is an abandonment of our duty,’’