By David Cruz
Faced with few options — none of them good — Gov. Chris Christie chose the issue he’s been flogging for months now — pension payments — as his way to plug deficits and balance the state’s budget. Christie announced that he would find the extra money by cutting this year’s $1.6 billion payment to the pension program to $690 million, and slashing next year’s payment from $2.2 billion to $681 million.
“This is not a situation that we can ignore. It is a situation that is overwhelming us and we’re either gonna take it on or we’re not. I’m gonna take it on. Others choose not to, that’s their business,” Christie said.
The governor was defiant when asked how lawmakers would react to his essentially reneging on his 2011 deal with the legislature. He said he would pay what his administration was responsible for — active employees — and not what he said were deals made by previous governors.
“The fact of the matter is that lots of folks before I got here enhanced benefits to the pension system without identifying payment streams for them and many made no payment or very little payment at all in those years,” said Christie.
The governor said revenues for the two fiscal years are expected to be off by $2.7 billion. And with 94 cents of every budget dollar already committed to health benefits, debt and pensions, he said, it was time to get serious about cutting spending.
“I’ve been saying over the last several months that come fiscal year 16 New Jersey is going to be paying more for health benefits costs for retirees than we pay for active employees. If there is any greater symbol for how untenable the system has become, I don’t know what is,” Christie said.
Not surprisingly, Democrats were quick to put the responsibility for the crisis on the governor. A statement from Speaker Vincent Prieto said, “Abandoning pension payments only make things worse down the road, and that’s unfair to taxpayers who rightly deserve and expect better from someone who vowed to fix the state.”
The budget crisis is just the latest setback for Christie, whose second term has been a string of crises, beginning with the GWB. November’s election and the Jersey Comeback concept seem like eons ago.
When asked to assess the status of the Jersey Comeback, Christie said, “I said the Jersey Comeback has begun, not that it had finished. You guys just like to cut that last part of it off.” When asked if he would say it’s on first base or second base, Christie said, “First base, second base, third base, David, I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. I don’t have a crystal ball.”
The governor hinted at more budget tinkering to come. He said he wasn’t ready to discuss details yet but his treasurer — who’s testifying before the Assembly Budget Committee tomorrow — will likely be pressed for more specifics.