The crowd cheered as Gov. Chris Christie hit familiar targets—public workers' pensions and health care reform—addressing a filled-to-capacity Center in Hopatcong on Wednesday.
But the morning's loudest ovation went to Sparta resident Debra Nicholson, who began her question at the town hall-style meeting—Christie's first in Sussex County—by calling the governor "hot and sexy."
Christie, a first-term Republican, laughed and said Nicholson should write a note to his wife, Mary Pat, with whom he celebrated a 25-year wedding anniversary on Tuesday.
But between jokes and claps from a mostly sympathetic audience, Christie returned to core tenets of his financial platform, heard often in similar meetings throughout New Jersey in recent months.
"I want to be fair, but I can't be stupid," he said.
Christie reiterated that he wants public workers to pay 30 percent of their health care premiums instead of 1.5 percent of their salary, the current contribution for many. He said health benefits for public employees makes up $4.9 billion of his $29 billion budget proposal. Christie said, under his plan, employees would be contributing the proposed 30 percent three years after its implementation.
"The majority of teachers in this state pay nothing for health insurance from the day they start until the day they're done. We can't have that anymore. It's not fair," he said.
Christie also reiterated his want for four fundamental changes in the state employees' pension system, which he said faces a $54 billion shortfall. He said legislators should raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 65, roll back a 9 percent benefit increase from 2001, eliminate cost-of-living raises and increase workers' contributions.
Christie said the plan would cut the pension system's shortfall to $28 billion in 30 years. He said Democratic Senator Steve Sweeney's own pension proposals would take the shortfall to $108 billion over the same time period—and he said that's simply not aggressive enough.
"This is what's killing the state of New Jersey," he said. "The costs of pension and health care are destroying the state's economy, and now it's time for us to get to work."
Christie also said he didn't mind public unions protesting his pension plans—adding it was their right to make grievances known.
"I'm OK with it," he said. "The real question now is not if we change the pension system, but how we change it. If we don't, it will go belly up."
Responding a question by Nicholson (following her endorsement of the governor's sex appeal), Christie said he's dismayed Democrats have blocked his attempt to eliminate the Council on Affordable Housing, the state entity responsible for outlining municipality's obligations for fostering affording housing. Christie said he doesn't believe decisions about local planning should be micromanaged from Trenton.
He also said the Highlands Act, an environmental regulation meant to preserve water in northern New Jersey, was "based on a lie"—that property owners impacted by preservation would be compensated for any losses. He said the state's never been able to provide that money.
And Christie told Hopatcong special education teacher Danielle Kovach, named Sussex County's and New Jersey's 2010-11 Teacher of the Year, that he'd be glad to meet with her and other county teachers of the year about education issues.
Most commenters during the question-and-answer session complimented the governor. But some of his most ardent supporters were left out in the cold. Literally.
Doors opened around 9 a.m., at least half-hour before the scheduled time, as a line wrapped around the parking lot. Some Christie supporters, denied entrance when the building reached capacity at about 360 people, watched through windows.
Janet Durica, 69, of Stanhope, was one of them. She held a homemade "Go Christie!" sign as she stood outside.
"We were hoping a few people wouldn't show up," Durica said.