Transcript: Diane Sawyer Interviews New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Calls teachers union "political thugs," says government must reach budget deal.

ByABC News
April 6, 2011, 5:35 PM

April 6, 2011— -- DIANE SAWYER: So we're looking at a year later here and somebody said once that you were like a teenager with the hands on the wheel for the first time. Still feel like that?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, I do. I still feel like every day -- like I've said to the kids that I just met in the classroom -- I feel like every day I have an opportunity to do something great. And that's what this job offers you. So, I kind of wake up every morning excited to get going and to get to work, 'cause the things that we're working on are so important. And I have a chance to actually do something -- not just talk about it but actually do it.

DIANE SAWYER: We have seen all the high-octane debate. Debate is a polite word sometimes for what's going on about education in New Jersey. I was looking up and I saw the ad running now that has been taken out, which talks about you and keeps saying, "Chris Christie is making the wrong choices for New Jersey." [Critics say] that larger class sizes put the children at risk, that cutting funding for the schools over $1 billion, in fact, is going to cost the children in what they learn.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, listen, we left $1 billion in federal funding. And I can't print money like the federal government.

DIANE SAWYER: Is it gonna cost the children in what they learn?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: I don't think so. It doesn't have to. And, you know, what I said to the teacher's union a year ago was if they had been willing to take a pay freeze for one year we wouldn't have any larger class sizes, 'cause [we] wouldn't have had to lay off teachers. But instead, they chose to continue to get their salary increases rather than be part of the shared sacrifice, Diane. And they weren't. And they say they're for the kids. They should have taken the salary freeze. They didn't. And now, you know, we had to lay teachers off.

DIANE SAWYER: Bruce Springsteen, you just told the kids here you're the number one fan of Bruce Springsteen. "Thunder Road," you talked about a savior in the streets. He has written a letter in which he says that it's simply a contradiction between your large tax cuts including for really rich people and doing things that change education for the kids that affect teachers, cut the services to those of the most dire conditions. Those cuts are eating away at the lower edges of the middle class and not just those in poverty and are likely to continue to get worse. Bruce Springsteen.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, well, listen, I don't-- I'm not s-- Are you surprised to hear that from Bruce? I mean, you know, Bruce is liberal. doesn't mean I like him any less. But you know, Bruce believes that we should be raising taxes all the time on everyone to do all the things that he'd like to see government do. That's fine, it's his point of view and he's absolutely welcome to it, and I have great respect for it, because he speaks out. And unlike other people who don't, he speaks out. That's great for him.

But here's the deal. The deal is that, first of all, I didn't cut taxes on millionaires. [Democratic ex-Gov.] John Corzine did. He let the millionaires' tax expire. And I inherited government, Diane, with a 10 percent unemployment [rate], where the top 1 percent of the taxpayers in New Jersey already pay 41 percent of the income tax. I think they're paying their fair share.

And the fact is we have to make government smaller and we have to make it smarter, and we have to rein in the costs of benefits and pensions that are bankrupting our state. Those are the things that are eating away at the edge of the middle class -- not what I'm doing.

DIANE SAWYER: But if good teachers come to you and say, "A smaller classroom is a great thing for good teaching. And I'm a good teacher and I've come to you and said this." And if you simply tax -- and I know how you feel about the businesses that are affected, take them out of it -- just tax people who make a whole lot of money a little bit more and you can keep the class size the same.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, first--

DIANE SAWYER: Wouldn't you do that? Is that not a tradeoff?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, first of all, if I could do it I might consider it. But it won't, because the tax they're talking about-- First of all, the tax they're talking about is the one that Gov. Cuomo's getting rid of in New York, the millionaire's tax, for the same reason that I don't want it back. Because the last time we had it in 2009, 50 percent of the filers on that tax were small business owners, were people who were in employing people in New Jersey. And it would only raise about $600 million. We're not talking about a tax that would solve all of the problems that these folks are talking about.

The fact is-- The fact is that, you know, we have a pension system that's $54 billion under funded, a public sector health benefit system that's $67 billion under funded because our benefits are out of whack to public employees. We need to have everybody be part of the sacrifice, not just some people.

And, you know, the folks from the public sector unions believe they should be exempted from what's happened in the recession. The state supreme court's gonna hear it and we'll see what happens. But I'll tell you this, I don't know that the state supreme court-- No one elected them. And I don't know that the state supreme court should be able to order how we spend and how we tax. It seems to me under the constitution that that's what you elect a governor and a legislature for. But we'll see what happens.