For Governor Christie, who’s trying to restart his presidential campaign despite an interlocking series of scandals that have plagued him, the ongoing pension crisis in New Jersey might be what keeps him from that goal.
For Christie, of course, it wasn’t meant to be that way. As Christie Watch has noted, ever since his 2012 speech to the Republican National Convention, the governor has touted himself as the Republican best able to deliver Democrats in support of tough pension changes. But now he’s confronted with powerful and growing opposition to yet another round of pension and healthcare benefit cuts, undermining his plan to present himself as a leader who’s garnered bipartisan support for his wrecking-ball approach to pension reform.
His loss of support because of his assault on pensions is reflected in a new survey released on June 4 by Fairleigh Dickinson’s Public Mind, which reveals that, by wide margins, New Jerseyans don’t agree that cutting state contributions to pension funds and reducing payouts to retirees is the right way to deal with the state’s pension problems. According to the poll, “almost two thirds (61 percent) believe the state’s pension system is, at the very least, experiencing serious problems, with a quarter (23 percent) who believe it’s already in a state of crisis,” but “only 27 percent believe reduced payouts are the answer, as compared with almost two-thirds (63 percent) who believe the state needs to honor the promises it made to its workers.” The poll also found that large majorities of New Jersey Democrats, especially among union members, minorities and women, are likely to oppose Christie’s planned cuts:
Those in public employee union households are the most supportive of honoring promises (85 percent), but a majority of voters with no connection to a public employee union member also want the government to make good on its promises rather than reduce payouts (56 percent). Democrats (73 percent), women (68 percent) and non-whites (73 percent) are also more likely than voters overall to favor fidelity over reforms that reduce benefits.
Back in 2011, with the support of Stephen Sweeney, a conservative Democrat and Christie ally who is president of the state Senate, Christie rammed through legislation that slashed future cost-of-living increases by tens of billions of dollars, forced retirees to pay billions more over time toward their pensions, cut benefits and raised the retirement age to 65. In exchange for the benefit cuts and increased contributions by employees, Christie agreed to legislation requiring a seven-year ramp up in state payments to the pension system to make up for many years of underfunding. The increased state contributions were supposed to put the pension system on a sound footing.
But instead of making the pension funding he agreed to, Christie decided to ignore the law. In a unilateral action May 20, he cut this year’s payment from $1.58 billion to $696 million and next year’s installment from $2.25 billion to $681 million in order to fill the budget hole created when tax revenues in April were way short of expectations.