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Second Try On NJ Pension Overhaul A Much Bigger Political Lift
Updated On: Apr 17, 2015
State union workers gather outside the Statehouse Annex in 2011 in protest of changes to public employee pension and health benefits. Gov. Chris Christie is calling for another overhaul, but the second go around will be much harder. (Tony Kurdzuk | The Star-Ledger)
NJ.com — TRENTON — The public employee benefits overhaul in 2011 took all of the political muscle New Jersey's leaders could muster, with top Democrats in the state Legislature crossing their own base, New Jersey's powerful unions, to stand with Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
The exercise was bruising. Fractured and up for re-election, Democrats angrily fought amongst themselves while thousands of public workers packed the street outside, some mourning the death of a party that had long been their defender.
The overhaul passed, and Christie declared bipartisan victory.
Now, four years later, that victory doesn't taste as sweet for Christie, who has twice failed to make the payments to the pension system mandated by the law, and who on Tuesday proposed shorting it again and called for more union concessions.
The second bite at the apple, however, will be much harder. Many union leaders say their members feel burned and betrayed, and until Christie makes good on his word and makes the payments, they will be unlikely to agree to anything he proposes.
The unions themselves are at odds over the path forward, with some criticizing the New Jersey Education Association, the largest teachers union, for agreeing to continue talks with Christie about a plan to replace their system with a less generous one.
And the politics have become more knotty, as Christie's popularity in the state is on the decline, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), his most important legislative ally on the first overhaul, appears likely to run for governor in 2017.
"This will be enormously difficult," said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. "Christie obviously is shaping this agenda because of his presidential ambitions, and Sweeney's staking his position because of his gubernatorial ambitions. And union members are caught in the middle."
Christie on Tuesday announced he and the teachers union had agreed to continue discussing a framework of changes to the teachers' pension system, including freezing the current plan, replacing it and handing over control to the union.
The state would be required, by a proposed constitutional amendment, to make periodic payments into a trust, and the union would be required to negotiate with the state to achieve savings in health care costs.
After the speech, however, the teachers union criticized Christie for overstating the nature of their agreement, and the head of the firefighters union, Eddie Donnelly, said the teachers union leadership should be "ashamed" of endorsing Christie's plan.
"Collectively maybe we can work to help each other, but when you're making backroom deals and you're not including everyone in the conversation, division sets in," Donnelly said. "In today's time, that's the last thing labor needs in New Jersey."
The unions gained a leg up Monday, when state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled Christie violated their contractual rights by not following the 2011 law and ordered him and the Legislature to fix the problem, meaning, pay up.
Jacobson criticized the state for its "succession of empty promises."
"You can't undo 2011," said Hetty Rosenstein, director of Communication Workers of America New Jersey. "We're not going to forget and let him say, that pension benefits bill is gone and now we're going to give you a worse one. Nah, that's lousy."
The president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, Patrick Colligan, said no discussions could happen before Christie lived up to 2011.
"We literally got that shoved down our throat and got nothing on the other end of the stick," Colligan said.
But Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said the bad feelings over 2011 and the need to make the payments were separate and apart from the need to come up with a plan to put the pension system on a better footing.
"Let's keep the emotions out and solve the problem," Steinhauer said. "If we do nothing and pensions go away, does it really matter what he said or how you felt. What you'll really feel is that you don't have a pension check coming in each month."
Despite Steinhauer's openness to the plan, Sweeney panned it after Christie's speech, echoing the sentiments of other unions and saying Christie must make the promised payments before asking anyone for more concessions.
Democrats wants to pay pension costs with a millionaires tax, but Christie has said he will not support that or any other tax increases to fund the system. Without that, the only way to pay the costs would be to slash parts of the budget like education.
"We can fund the pension system — we showed we could fund it," Sweeney said. "Even the unions said they would be open to looking at things as long as you can fund it. But you have to live up to your first commitment."
Sweeney finds himself in an unenviable position because he bucked the unions in 2011 and joined with Christie, a betrayal that hasn't been forgotten by card-carrying members who feel the Senate President abandoned them for political gain, Harrison said.
"This is a really sticky wicket for Sweeney," she said. "He took a hit politically for forcing this first reform on the unions, and he is taking a hit because the administration is failing to live up to its end of the bargain."
Another problem for Sweeney, Harrison said, is that if he does get elected governor, figuring out how to bring the pension and health costs under control will become his problem, and a millionaires tax alone would not come close to solving it.
And standing in his way may be the same unions he's expected to court to get the job.
"The entire playing field has changed," Donnelly said.