By Brenda Flanagan
“I can really use the word, ‘panicky’ without exaggerating. That’s the tone of voice that I’m getting from police and fire who are calling,” said Peter Guzzo.
Guzzo says panicked cops and firefighters call him several times a week, terrified their pensions will collapse into insolvency.
The lobbyist told members of Assembly Judiciary Committee that police and fire unions favor asking New Jersey voters to amend the state constitution and require regular, quarterly payments into the public pension system.
“Most police and fire do not receive Social Security. They don’t contribute to the system and they don’t receive it. They rely on their pensions,” Guzzo said.
“There’s a blame game going on,” said Mark Worobetz.
Retired teacher Worobetz also testified at today’s hearing that solicited public input over the referendum question. He said the pension system’s $44 billion of debt is not the workers’ fault.
“They want to blame people, the people getting the pension — the firemen, the teachers, the state workers — for the problem. Yet the state over that period of time has failed to make all their payments while every pensioneer has made every one of theirs. I think this is why the constitutional amendment is required,” he said.
“During my career, I made a total of 680 payments to the pension. Those contributions were made on time, in full and without ever missing a single one,” said retired teacher Miriam Reichenbach. “The proposed constitutional amendment to fully fund pensions is absolutely essential.”
Lawmakers proposed the amendment after New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled the state couldn’t legally be forced to make pension payments. It mandates increasing partial pension payments on a sliding scale until achieving a full payment of $5 billion in 2021. But business leaders testified today that could force lawmakers to cut services or hike taxes just to pay pension bills.
“This is a super-priority, which would take precedence over education, health care, public safety,” said NJBIA Chief Government Affairs Officer Melanie Willoughby. “We do not feel that we should have the state short on resources because of a the constitutional amendment.”
They also put little faith in a recent poll, which showed 71 percent of New Jersey voters approve of the measure.
“Voters are not educated on this issue. This is an issue that could be economic Armageddon for the state of New Jersey,” said New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Bracken.
More controversy erupted when the chairman closed the record without letting lawmakers testify, especially one who’d come specifically to do that.
“It’s outrageous. And it’s a way to thwart any substantive debate about what I believe will be the most single, most ill-advised and disastrous action the New Jersey Legislature has ever taken,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon.
“If anybody comes here to grandstand, that’s not what this is supposed to be about. Substituting into committee is a privilege. This was a public hearing for the public, not for legislators to pontificate, quite frankly,” said Assemblyman John McKeon.
If lawmakers do vote to put the pension question on this November’s ballot, you can expect a well-financed knock-down, drag-out public relations battle over the issue this fall.