Union Workers Call for Pension Ballot Question

By Brenda Flanagan

“So we come, asking you, Lord, to take control of this situation, in the name of Jesus,” said Rev. Samuel Madden of the Resurrection New Covenant Church in Atlantic City.

About 1,000 public union employees prayed with ministers on the State House steps for divine deliverance from political gridlock that’s stalled a Senate vote on a bill aimed at saving their pensions. Unions like the CWA and NJEA ramped up the volume and the pressure to break the deadlock.

“No pension, no peace.”

The public pension fund’s $44 billion in debt and the bill would put a question on this November’s ballot, asking voters for a constitutional amendment that would lock the state into making quarterly payments to replenish the fund by 2020.

“The pension is, at this point, and has become a moral issue. And in this state, not paying the pension is a moral crisis,” said CWA NJ State Director Hetty Rosenstein.

But legislative leaders worried whether New Jersey can afford it: find billions in tax revenues to pay for both restoring pensions plus renewing New Jersey’s nearly bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund. Senate President Steve Sweeney has insisted these two costly crises are linked and that the state must be able to afford both. The unions disagreed, vociferously.

“We are here to fix this problem today. We are here to put the issue on the ballot and we are here to give the voters of New Jersey a chance to do what the politicians haven’t done,” said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer.

“The easy thing is just to put it up and if it fails, say I gave you what you wanted. It died, it’s on you,” Sweeney said.

Standing with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, Sweeney explained he will not post the pension bill unless he gets the TTF renewal safely passed with a veto-proof majority. Democratic leaders now support a bill that funds the TTF with a 23-cent gas tax hike in exchange for several other tax cuts. But it does not include the 1 percent sales tax cut demanded by Gov. Chris Christie who warned that without it, any TTF renewal plan is “DOA”.

“There’s no commitment from the governor. In fact, I told people I expect the TTF not to be funded for quite some time. The speaker and I are stretching it big time with tax cuts to try to get Republican votes. But I’m not going to risk $2 billion. I need to know where we’re going to wind up,” Sweeney said.

With hundreds of unfinished road projects sitting idle, towns want the TTF restored fast. Prieto said that’s an overriding concern.

“A stalemate or no action is not acceptable. People are out of work. It’s a public safety issue also. A lot of people don’t get that. It’s an economic issue,” Prieto said.

Republicans say the votes aren’t there.

“I think this governor’s doing the right thing of holding firm and putting together a permanent tax fairness TTF sponsored program,” said Sen. Kevin O’Toole. “Let’s turn the page and find something we can work together, something more constructive and let’s get this TTF funded and moving forward.”

Both Sweeney and Prieto say they’re still “counting votes” in an effort to come up with that veto-proof majority. But the pension bill’s got a deadline. If it doesn’t pass by Aug. 8,  it won’t get on this November’s ballot.