NJ Supreme Court Sides with Christie on Pension Issue
Updated On: Aug 14, 2015
NJTV News - So much was seen to be riding on this decision. Sure, there were massive budget implications, but Gov. Chris Christie’s reputation and potential presidential ambitions were also at stake. On both fronts, the governor — who’s in New Hampshire today — could be forgiven for doing an end-zone dance.
“This decision is an important victory not only for our taxpayers who simply cannot afford these unsustainably high costs,” he said in a statement, “But for limited, constitutional government that recognizes the proper role of the executive and legislative branches of government.
The court ruled that Chapter 78, the so-called pension reform law of 2011, was not, in fact, a binding contract, and while its goals may have been well-intentioned, the only way to make it binding on future governors and legislatures, is to get voters to pass a constitutional amendment. The unions, needless to say, were angry, at the court, but especially at the governor.
As New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer put it, “We’re not sad. We’re not scared. We’re fighting mad. And we’re fighting hard. Forget about the court; it ducked its responsibility. Forget about this governor, he’s an abject failure. Our state’s a fiscal basket case and that’s because of his failed leadership.”
“If the governor continues to act irresponsibly by refusing to fund the pension system according to the law, then we will call on Senate President [Steve] Sweeney and Speaker of the Assembly [Vincent] Prieto to approve a constitutional amendment to be put forth on the ballot,” said New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech.
That could be a heavy lift because while today’s ruling affects around 800,000 people, the governor has been pretty successful at directing the narrative surrounding the pension fight and voters may not be particularly inclined to lend the unions a hand.
“I have to talk with the other members of all options that we’re gonna have right now. I’m not ruling anything out, I’m not ruling anything in. I’m not gonna speak for the Assembly and I would not have that conversation without having the chance to talk to my members, but it’s something, like anything else, that’s on the table,” Sweeney said.
The court was pretty clear, if not downright emphatic, about who’s responsible for fixing the pension problem.
“That the state must get its financial house in order is plain,” it said. “The responsibility for the budget process remains squarely with the Legislature and Executive, but the Court cannot resolve that need in place of the political branches. They will have to deal with one another to forge a solution and the loss of public trust due to the broken promises made through Chapter 78’s enactment is staggering.”
Republicans were echoing the governor’s call today for the union to come back to the negotiating table. Declan O’Scanlon is the Republican Budget Officer.
“The major thing that this decision changes is that it sends a very big and large message to my union friends — and I mean that — that they need to come back to the table and we need to come up with a long-term solution to both take care of our public workers and to take care of our taxpayers,” O’Scanlon said.
“You cannot negotiate with someone who cannot and does not keep their word. It isn’t possible and it would be foolish to try and so I think he just doesn’t have any credibility in this area,” said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey director of Communications Workers of America.
The unions say they’ve given too much. The governor says they haven’t given enough. And the court said today that both sides need to start talking — to one another — before the failure to fully fund the state pension goes from crisis to something much worse than that, as nine credit downgrades so far seem to be warning.
So, once again, the governor has managed to snatch a saving victory from the jaws of a potentially devastating defeat. What happens next is unclear, really, but with a favorable court ruling in his pocket, the governor knows the onus is back on the unions to come back to the table and any real day of reckoning has been put off into the future.