LACEY TOWNSHIP — The Elks Lodge was packed Thursday with 450 people there to hear Gov. Chris Christie talk about ethics reform, tax cuts and cleaning up government during his 94th town-hall meeting during his time in office.
Christie took the floor to loud applause and immediately started discussing ethics reform and cleaning up Trenton, a place he compared to Wonderland.
The governor’s visit was part of the series “The Christie Middle-Class Reform Agenda.”
The Republican governor attacked the practice of public officials holding multiple jobs and called for an end to the cashing of sick-time payouts for public employees.
Seated in the front row, state Sen. Chris Connors and Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove, both R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, and U.S. Rep Jon Runyan, R-3rd, applauded the governor.
Christie criticized Monroe Township Mayor Richard Pucci, referring to him as Wimpy and attacking his big paychecks for being mayor and executive director of the Middlesex County Improvement Authority.
The governor also had harsh words for state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Bergen, Hudson, for holding multiple public positions and taking home big paychecks.
“You can’t serve three masters. One public office should be more than enough for people in New Jersey,” Christie said.
Christie also talked about the need to rethink government to save taxpayer dollars, through options such as shared services and consolidation, which he said some towns are against.
On tax relief, Christie said he and state Sen. Majority Leader Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, agree on some things but not everything.
“What I care most about is if people get a tax break, and I don’t (care) if it’s his or mine,” Christie said.
Christie said he accepted Sweeney’s tax reduction plan but that Sweeney told the governor he’d get back to him.
“And what they came up with is ‘we don’t have enough money to cut your taxes,’” Christie said, stressing that the Democrats continue to spend. “They say, ‘Trust us, we’re the fiscally responsible ones. Don’t trust the governor,’ who has less people on the state payroll (than) at any time since January 2001.”
Sweeney did not return a call for comment Thursday.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said he differs from many fellow Democrats and supports Christie’s call for a tax cut.
“I am off the reservation on this one,” he said. “I’m one Democrat who believes we should do the tax cut.”
Van Drew said he supported Sweeney’s original call for a property-tax cut. He also supports the Democrats’ call to examine revenue levels and determine whether they are sufficient to support a cut. But where he differs from other Democrats is that he believes a tax cut is necessary even if it means scaling back services.
“I’m one person who would like to see a thoughtful process and dialogue,” he said. “Let’s see if we can do it.”
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he supports a tax cut only if the revenue supports it.
“I’m in favor of a tax cut if we can afford one,” he said. “If the numbers are what (Christie) says they are, then we can afford a tax cut.”
The state Office of Legislative Services recently reported that state revenue was about $100 million off projections.
“I don’t know how we can afford one,” Whelan said.
Before the public was permitted to ask questions of the governor Thursday, Christie prepped the audience with a list of rules of conduct.
“We’re all from New Jersey, so if you give it, you’re getting it back,” he warned.
One Waretown resident asked about the progress of sports betting in the state.
Christie said he has signed the bill, but the state is being sued by the major sports leagues and the NCAA to prevent sports gambling.
The state has hired lawyers, and the issue is in federal court, he said.
“This is very hypocritical because they know it’s going (on) illegally every day,” Christie said. “I would like to see it sent to Atlantic City and Monmouth racetrack to bring revenue to the city and the state. If it is monitored and controlled, it will be good for the people in New Jersey and the industry.”
As the forum began, a small crowd who said they were invited to attend by the Governor’s Office stood outside the building, hoping they would get in to hear Christie.
But a state fire marshal stood at the door and stopped people from going inside once capacity was reached at 450.
The doors opened at 2:15 p.m., and the public was urged to be there early to make sure they got inside, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said.
“We regret we can’t let everyone in, but it’s for safety and fire precautions. It’s on a first-come, first-served basis. Unfortunately, sometimes this happens and the crowd fills up,” Drewniak said.
Matt Mazzo, of Ocean Township, said he RSVP’d online and brought four people with him. He ended up leaving before the event started.
“I brought these people with me and I took off work, so I am very upset,” Mazzo said as he walked away from the Elks Lodge.
“If we take the time off of work and stand on line after we get a call at home to come to this, we should be able to attend. I am very upset,” said Diane Gola, of Lacey.
Gola later was admitted to the event.
Christie told the crowd that he was not running for president and that he plans to stay in New Jersey. He also said he is not interested in a position as U.S. attorney general if Republican Mitt Romney is elected president.
“You’re stuck with me. I’m not going anywhere,” Christie said.
Staff Writer Hoa Nguyen contributed to this report.
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