LONG HILL, New Jersey — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he would take "more extreme measures" to contain escalating public worker retirement costs if Democrats who control the Legislature refuse to negotiate additional pension changes.
The Republican governor and possible 2016 presidential candidate did not specify what those measures might be.
Christie devoted a portion of his budget speech Tuesday to the state's mounting retiree and debt costs, which are crowding out spending for education, drug rehabilitation and other priorities. He said 94 percent of new revenue anticipated for next year will be eaten up by these costs, squeezing out spending for new programs and hamstringing all but the most modest new initiatives.
On Wednesday, Christie told a town hall audience in Republican-dominated Morris County that he was determined not to allow the state to be consumed by rising pension costs.
"I'm ready to work with the entire Legislature to come up with ideas to fix this," Christie said. "But if they're unwilling to do it, then this is a problem we're going to own and I'll have to take more extreme measures to deal with it."
Democratic leaders said after Christie's budget speech that they were not interested in revisiting pension changes.
"We've done what we need to do with the pension system," Senate President Stephen Sweeney said. "We need to stay the course."
Sweeney said it's long been known what increased pension contributions will cost. Rather than changing benefits for public employees, they said the state needs to focus on growing the economy and creating more jobs, which would lead to higher tax revenue.
Christie helped cement his national reputation by taking on public employee unions. Changes enacted during his first term require public employees to pay more for benefits, postponed cost-of-living increases for retirees and forced the state to start paying into the fund after years of skipping or skimping on payments. The powerful teachers union spent millions in ads in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the proposals.
Now, Christie says those changes did not go far enough. The pension system for public employees, including teachers, government workers and public safety officers, is underfunded by $52 billion.
Christie spoke little about other aspects of his proposed budget, which abandons the idea of a 10 percent tax cut that Democrats thwarted two years ago. He has often promoted the cut but has not made a formal pitch since then.
His spending plan offers slight increases in aid for public schools and municipal governments and hikes higher education funding by $159 million, or about 8 percent. The budget also includes $5 million to allow some districts to implement longer school hours.
A balanced budget must be approved by the Legislature before July 1.
Christie will discuss the budget proposal again Wednesday night during his monthly radio call-in program.