Plug About to be Pulled on Pension Funding Amendment to NJ’s Constitution
It appears to be all over but the shouting for a proposed constitutional amendment on pension contributions that’s very unlikely to make this November’s ballot.
And there will be shouting.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, had intended to put the pension funding proposal before voters this November. Unions are demanding that he do it. But he said again Thursday that he would not do so without knowing the tax-cut cost to the budget of the still-elusive political bargain that’s holding up a hike in the gas tax — a hold-up that's idling transportation projects and causing thousands of layoffs.
He said it even more firmly that he has before, calling the question a “dangerous, wrong approach” possibly leading to tax hikes or spending cuts, depending on the depth of the tax cuts and whether they’re compatible with an eventual $3.5 billion a year increase in pension contributions.
“The lack of a responsible TTF plan hangs like an ax over this process. We must make decisions that respect the dire realities of today. Under no circumstance will I join a blind effort to ruin the state’s budget for years to come,” Sweeney said.
New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer called Sweeney a “dishonest politician” who broke a promise.
“Senate President Steve Sweeney has betrayed every New Jersey public employee. His excuses, rationalizations and shifting positions don’t change the fundamental fact that he lied,” he said.
The failure to post the question shows the very reason the constitutional amendment is needed, said Hetty Rosenstein, the Communications Workers of America’s New Jersey director. The pension funds have a $79 billion unfunded liability in large part because the state government has made a full contribution in 20 years.
“There is no reason the pension should be a casualty of the Legislature’s inability to secure votes for the Transportation Trust Fund,” Rosenstein said. “But every time there is some other political or economic issue, the pension plan is traded for it.”
Sweeney – who one day earlier accused union leaders of bribery or extortion for saying they would withhold campaign contributions if the ballot question isn’t posted – said he won’t be intimidated and has long supported the constitutional amendment that’s now in limbo.
“I get trying to blame somebody and point a finger. But no one’s fought for it more than I have,” Sweeney said. “And you know, the same results have happened each time I’m trying to save the workers’ pensions. I get the crap kicked out of me. And that’s OK. But I’m not going to back down. And I’m not going to run away. And I’m not going to hide.”
Sweeney said there’s no harm in waiting until 2017 for the ballot question, when it would be before voters at the same time as the next gubernatorial election.
“We have the money in the budget. So what I’m saying is: What is the issue if we need to get something resolved first in order to make sure I can really fund your pension?” Sweeney said.
Sweeney said the budget can accommodate stepped-up pension payments if the gas-tax hike is combined with other tax cuts costing the state budget around $900 million. The version preferred by Christie, and passed by the Assembly, would eventually be closer to $2 billion in foregone revenue.
“Say we compromise up, and we get to $1.2 billion. I can’t fund the pension,” Sweeney said. “So I’ve got to face reality in what I’m dealing with.”
Sweeney held a Statehouse news conference Thursday with representatives from a variety of interests, including a building-trades union, supportive of putting off the vote on the pension amendment. Most cited fears that its passage could lead to spending cuts.
A Transportation Trust Fund compromise is perhaps one vote shy of the super-majority support it requires to overcome a veto by Gov. Chris Christie in the Senate, Sweeney said. (Its chances in the Assembly, where it stalled in June, are less clear.)
“The Republicans that have been supportive in the Senate have been rock-solid, but when I’ve made changes to accommodate some Democrat requests then – you know, you pick up a Democrat, you lose a Republican,” Sweeney said.
“I have enough Republicans. I don’t have enough Democrats. OK?” Sweeney said. “Let me make that clear: I have enough Republicans. I’m short Democrats.”
For all practical purposes, the deadline for the ballot question may have already passed.
The state constitution says in addition to proposed amendments being approved by the required number of lawmakers, “The Legislature shall cause the proposed amendment or amendments to be published at least once in one or more newspapers of each county, if any be published therein, not less than three months prior to submission to the people.”
This year’s election in Nov. 8. Three months before that is Aug. 8. Even if the Senate were to approve putting the amendment on the ballot at its session Monday, Aug. 8, the proposal would not have been published as a legal notice in newspapers by that date.