"Some union leaders have suggested that you're running the state like Tony Soprano," Kroft told Christie.
"Well, as an Italian American, I take great offense to that," he replied, laughing. "Listen, you know what it is? I'm the first person to expose them for what they've been doin' to the public."
Asked if he wants the public employee unions to share the pain, Christie told Kroft, "You bet. I want them to share in the sacrifice. And this is what I say to public sector unions: 'Listen you can boo me now, but I'm the first governor who has walked into this room in ten years and told you the truth. And here is the truth. If you don't partner with me to get this done in ten years you won't have a pension.' And that's the truth."
It's also the truth that some of the responsibility for New Jersey's pension woes lie at the doorstep of the governor's mansion. Christie and his predecessors have failed to contribute to the state's share of its pension obligation in 13 of the last 17 years, one of the reasons the fund is going broke. Christie says it's ancient history.
"We spent too much on everything. We spent too much. We spent money we didn't have. We borrowed money just crazily. The credit cards maxed out, and it's over. It's over. We now have to get to the business of climbin' out of the hole. We've been diggin' it for a decade or more. We've gotta climb now, and a climb is harder. Gotta do it," he said.
The problem with that, according to Wall Street analyst Meredith Whitney, is that no one really knows how deep the holes are. She and her staff spent two years and thousands of man hours trying to analyze the financial condition of the 15 largest states. She wanted to find out if they would be able to pay back the money they've borrowed and what kind of risk they pose to the $3 trillion municipal bond market, where state and local governments go to finance their schools, highways, and other projects.
"How accurate is the financial information that's public on the states? And municipalities," Kroft asked.
"The lack of transparency with the state disclosure is the worst I have ever seen," Whitney said. "Ultimately we have to use what's publicly available data and a lot of it is as old as June 2008. So that's before the financial collapse in the fall of 2008."
Whitney believes the states will find a way to honor their debts, but she's afraid some local governments which depend on their state for a third of their revenues will get squeezed as the states are forced to tighten their belts. She's convinced that some cities and counties will be unable to meet their obligations to municipal bond holders who financed their debt. Earlier this year, the state of Pennsylvania had to rescue the city of Harrisburg, its capital, from defaulting on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for an incinerator project.
"There's not a doubt in my mind that you will see a spate of municipal bond defaults," Whitney predicted.
Asked how many is a "spate," Whitney said, "You could see 50 sizeable defaults. Fifty to 100 sizeable defaults. More. This will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of defaults."
Municipal bonds have long been considered to be among the safest investments, bought by small investors saving for retirement, and held in huge numbers by big banks. Even a few defaults could affect the entire market. Right now the big bond rating agencies like Standard & Poor's and Moody's, who got everything wrong in the housing collapse, say there's no cause for concern, but Meredith Whitney doesn't believe it.
"When individual investors look to people that are supposed to know better, they're patted on the head and told, 'It's not something you need to worry about.' It'll be something to worry about within the next 12 months," she said.
No one is talking about it now, but the big test will come this spring. That's when $160 billion in federal stimulus money, that has helped states and local governments limp through the great recession, will run out.
The states are going to need some more cash and will almost certainly ask for another bailout. Only this time there are no guarantees that Washington will ride to the rescue.
Produced by James Jacoby