By Desirée Taylor
It sounded like a political bombshell. The Senate president vowing to shut down state government if Gov. Chris Christie did not make full payments into the state workers’ pension fund.
“If the pension payment isn’t in the budget that he proposes, then we won’t have any budget hearings until it’s in there,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said.
Sweeney’s playing hard ball because he and other Democratic leaders supported the governor’s call for overhauling the pension system back in 2011. The bipartisan legislation required public employees to take concessions with the promise New Jersey would increase its payments over the next few years. But the governor’s comments during his State of the State address has Sweeney wondering if the governor may renege on that promise.
“When the governor starts saying I want a longer school day, I want a longer school year but I have to make this pension payment, and this debt service. If I didn’t have to do that, you know it was thrown out there and it wasn’t too hard to read between the lines. No, we have to make the pension payment,” said Sweeney.
“We made a commitment to seven years, completely fully funding the pension. We are actually in year three. This coming budget is about $2.4 billion. We need to make a pension payment, because we can’t take another pension holiday. That’s how we got into this problem,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
But Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, a Republican, says the governor never said he would not make the pension payment, only that tough choices lie ahead. Because as Bramnick puts it, it’s a math issue and if you fund one priority, something else may suffer.
New Jersey’s pension fund is in trouble, say officials with the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey, because past governors from both parties didn’t fund it due to tight budgets.
“Even after pension reform, New Jersey’s pension system, relative to its economic strength, in a study, is still considered second or third worst in the country,” said Board of Directors President of the Common Sense Institution of NJ, Jerry Cantrell.
Worst case scenario is New Jersey’s pension could become insolvent, leaving some wondering if further reforms are needed. The governor’s office didn’t respond to our request for comment.
The governor is scheduled to introduce his budget proposal in about a month.