Christie focuses on education reform, lowering taxes in State of the State

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TRENTON — Despite the national attention on the governor for controversial lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last September, Gov. Chris Christie focused on improving education, lowering property taxes and driving down crime Tuesday in his annual State of the State address.

“I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state,” Christie said. “This administration and this legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed.”

In his first State of the State in his second term as governor, Christie again took responsibility for the actions of his staff involved in the growing scandal, and said his office would cooperate with “all appropriate inquiries” into the matter.

But he quickly switched focus on work he believes needs to be done in the state.

Christie proposed extending the school year and school day for public schools, and stated that urban schools demand more attention.

“We need to take bigger and broader steps to adjust our approach to K-12 education to address the new competitive world we live in,” Christie said. “Life in 2014 is different than life 100 years ago, and it demands something more for our students.”

The plan for a longer school day and year would be delivered shortly, Christie said, adding that he was working with New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to develop the proposal. The plan was met with applause from the legislature, and Christie said the effort would be done in a bipartisan way.

“I believe this is key step to increase our competitiveness and increase student outcomes,” Christie said.

He said that there are still too many failing school districts, many of which are in the state’s cities. He did point out positive developments in cities like Newark and Camden.

“While the vast majority of teachers are performing well, some are underperforming – and they should be removed from our children’s classroom,” Christie said.

Christie said the 2-percent cap on property taxes, passed in 2010, was a success, but proposed a new property tax reform initiative to further address New Jersey’s high property taxes.

He asked the legislature to make permanent an existing cap on interest arbitration awards that is set to expire come April, as well as reform what he called “costly” state rules that increase the burden on local governments.

He said that local governments should be able to “run their governments like business” – particularly by consolidating, sharing services, and cutting out duplicative costs.
“Let’s help our towns clear away arcane rules that stand between them and lower property taxes,” he said.

Christie said his office had established a special unit to prosecute pension fraud by executive order and called on towns to stop instituting user fees for services that would typically be in a local budget.

Later in the speech, Christie also called on the state to push for pension reform. He said in the 2015 budget, pension and debt service costs could amount to $1 billion.

Preventing violent crime was also on Christie’s agenda. He said the fatal shooting of a young lawyer at the Short Hills mall in December is a key indicator that more needs to be done in the state.

He proposed reform that would allow state courts to hold violent criminals, who are found to be a danger to the community, without bail, as well as give incentives to communities that share police services.

Sharing those services, Christie said, would allow for more cops on the streets. He said that he intended to reintroduce shared services and consolidation reform in the current session of the state legislature.

Christie added that nonviolent drug offenders should be given treatment rather than be imprisoned, and pointed to the Overdose Protection Act passed this year. That act allows people to report drug overdoses without the fear of being charged with some minor drug crimes.

Christie also proposed a plan to provide $500,000 grants to treatment providers that also work to provide employment services to those in drug court.

Ultimately, Christie’s speech focused on choice, and that New Jersey has the chance to choose to work together. He again touched on the importance of bipartisanship for the state to move forward.

“Our destiny is not set – it is the product of the choices we make. Our future is not set – it, too, is the product of the choices we make from this day forward,” Christie said.

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