Christie lays out pension, health benefits reform
GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP — Gov. Chris Christie unveiled one of the more aggressive pension and health benefit reform efforts in the nation on Tuesday, sending unions and Democrats into battle over what do next for a system that now demands billions of dollars a year from the state budget.
Christie, a Republican, called for pension cuts, increased retirement ages and healthcare contributions well in excess of what unions had bitterly fought against only months ago.
Unions and Democrats responded by demanding that the state renew paying pension contributions after years of failing to fund, or woefully under-funding, the system. One prominent union leader declared that even if successful, Christie would lose in court over the changes.
In a senior citizen community center packed with some 150 people, Christie compared his first eight months in dealing with the state’s fiscal situation to arriving in a room right after a big beer party.
“There were a bunch of drunk people passed out on the floor, a whole bunch of empties lying around, broken dishes,’’ Christie said. “So I showed up. Now I have two choices. Walk out, or clean up. We’re going to clean up.’’
Christie acknowledged the state having missed pension contributions for years was a problem. But he declared that even if the state makes its required pension payments for the next 15 years, it would still face some $85 billion in unfunded liabilities.
“If all we do is pour money into a broken and failed system, that broken and failed system will swallow that money alive, and get hungrier for more.’’ Christie said. “We can’t afford to continue like that.’’
Christie’s half-hour speech drew a largely positive response from those in the senior center.
Eric Lawrence, 54, of Gloucester Township, a former computer operations manager who was laid off 10 years ago and later became disabled from a stroke, praised Christie for trying to trim back public workers.
“I love this man,’’ Lawrence said in an interview. “To see him take a hold of the public sector -- without the private sector, the public sector doesn’t exist.’’
But not all were happy. As Christie outlined proposed pension changes for police and firefighters, some township police working security in the room audibly gasped and began to mutter.
Ronald G. Bakley, 64, a retired police officer who now serves as director of the labor council for the state Fraternal Order of Police, told Christie during the question-and-answer session he was offended by the beer party story, since he believed the public workers in that analogy were the drunk partygoers.
Christie said he was referring to the overall condition of the state.
Bakley, in later comments to reporters, said the FOP realizes the pension system is in arrears and needs to be fixed. But he didn’t think it was right to change the rules of the game for current employees.
“You’re telling officers in the street now that you have to put 30 years in,’’ he said. “That’s not right.’’
Sean D. Grannan Sr., the FOP president for the township police, said Christie wasn’t giving the full explanation of what has happened over the past 15 years.
“We’ve been paying into the system and keeping it solvent,’’ Grannan said. “He wants to paint us as the villain, and that’s not fair.’’
Contacted following the event, Hetty Rosenstein, who heads the state chapter of the Communication Workers of America, predicted that Christie’s proposal would lose in court if enacted because courts have already held that pension and benefits are “non-forfeitable’’ rights.
Rosenstein also said in an interview that Christie’s proposal falls harder on lower-paid government workers who would have average annual pensions of $25,000 or less.
“The governor is slashing a plan that has mostly women and minorities. Once again, it’s an attack on the middle class,’’ Rosenstein said. “This is a bizarre way to negotiate. You don’t call a press conference and make an outlandish attack on the lowest paid workers in the state.’’
Democrats urged the governor to commit money to the pensions system. In a press conference after his event, Christie said he would do so, unless state revenues plunged and he was forced to make cuts.
Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, called on Christie to sit down with the state’s unions.
“I am tired of the approach that divides our state,’’ Oliver said in a statement. “Leaders unite and build consensus. They do not divide and conquer and create enemies of the people who teach our children and protect our safety.’’
Eileen Norcross, senior researcher at George Mason University who has written about New Jersey’s pension problems, said Christie was attempting to move more aggressively than many other states in dealing with the problem, and she predicted that, if approved, unions would fight it in court.
Norcross praised Christie’s effort as “going in the right direction.’’ Still, she said the administration was still too optimistic in some of its projections.
She said she still was unsure how the state would be able to make its full pension contributions in future years. “It’s not a complete fix,’’ she said.