New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have made headlines by addressing the simmering scandal about the closing the George Washington Bridge during his State of the State Address, but his thoughts about pension reform also stirred controversy.
Christie urged pension changes to free up money that he said was needed for schools, infrastructure and other projects. Next year, the state is supposed to pay $2.4 billion into the pension system. That would add $1 billion next year to the state’s bill for pension and debt service costs.
“That’s nearly $1 billion we can’t spend on education. That we can’t invest in infrastructure improvement. That we can’t use to put more cops on the street,” the governor said. “That won’t be available to improve access to health care.”
Although he did not offer specific proposals, Christie’s pension talk drew the ire of Democrats, who pointed out that 2011 reforms approved by the legislature and governor had included the promise the state would contribute its share to the retirement fund.
Those reforms mandated that new employees pay more toward their retirement and froze the benefits of current retirees.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, told NJ.com that the governor was setting up a false choice between making improvements to education, public safety, and reducing property taxes or making pension payments.
“We are not going to break our commitments. It is not right to ask everybody to pay more," Sweeney told the website. “The employees are paying more. We asked them to do it. It wasn't easy, it was very painful. But we are not going to go back and say ‘oh guess what, it's getting tough now so we don't want to do it.’ ”
The Senate minority leader, Tom Kean Jr., praised Christie’s approach saying, “a very strong, optimistic speech.”
Last summer a Pew report on state pension systems, found New Jersey’s was 71 percent funded at the end of 2010 with unfunded liabilities of $36 billion. The reforms were intended to close that gap.