NJEA to Christie – Not So Fast On That Pension ‘Accord’
Not so fast, the New Jersey Education Association is saying, after Gov. Chris Christie's budget address Tuesday.
Christie stressed the need for continued pension and health benefit reform for public workers, announcing that the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefits Study Commission he appointed several months ago had reached "an unprecedented accord with the NJEA on a Roadmap for Reform to solve our long-term problems with the pension and health benefit systems."
But Christie's announcement apparently caught the president of the NJEA off guard.
For years, Christie has been feuding with the education union, trading insults and negative remarks over a variety of issues.
Christie won major concessions from public sector worker unions in 2011, signing legislation that forced public workers to contribute more to their pension and health benefits and wait longer to retire. Last year, however, he said those reforms don't go far enough and additional reforms are needed to ensure the pension system doesn't go bankrupt.
After the budget speech Tuesday, NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer insisted no deal had been completed.
"We have some concepts we think we can explore further with them and move through," he said. "We don't endorse everything that they say, but we do see some common area that we can work on."
He said more discussion is needed.
"The NJEA has been working with the Commission because that's what NJEA does. We meet with people we talk to them, we work out solutions," Steinhauer said.
When Steinhauer was asked about the tense relationship that has dragged on for years between the NJEA and Christie, he said "after you get done with all the name calling or whatever, we're still the professionals that are here to work and solve on the issues. I'm not going to do name calling, I'm not going to berate him, I want to work with his administration and get to solutions, I think that's what adults do."
Christie said the "Roadmap to Reform" he mentioned in his budget address calls for the existing pension plan for teachers to be frozen and replaced by a new plan. It also stipulates that control of both the existing and the new plan would be transferred to a trust overseen by the NJEA.
The governor went on to say the Roadmap requires the state to make periodic contribution to the trust to pay off the unfunded liability of the existing plan over the next 40 years.
Additionally, Christie said the commission would work with the NJEA to get savings in health care costs in a variety of ways, including wellness programs and other initiatives.
"There is a commitment to continue to work to find a solution," Steinhauer said. "The problem to solve here is there has to be money, that's always been the problem, there has to be a continuous stream of money that's accountable and that's what we've got to solve first. At the end of the day, the one thing I do agree with him, he needs to have a Constitutional Amendment that provides a funding source for any of this to work."
Following the budget address Tuesday, Steinhauer released a statement that read in part:
"Throughout our discussions with the commission, we have focused on policy approaches that will benefit the state and our members. Unfortunately, today politics trumped policy. NJEA is deeply disappointed that Gov. Christie overstated the nature of the understanding we reached with the commission after many months of conversation."
"We have not agreed to any changes to pensions or health benefits. We have only agreed to continue looking at all solutions that may provide our members with more stable pensions and affordable, high-quality health benefits. The solutions proposed by the commission are complex, and they will require a much greater commitment from the state than has been shown in recent years. For this process to succeed, all parties will have to conduct themselves with the utmost honesty and clarity in order to build trust and allow real solutions to emerge."