Sweeney: Unions Shouldn’t Trust Christie
Despite signing a bill into law in 2011 requiring the state to make full annual payments into state's public employees' pension system, Christie failed to do it in the last fiscal year and planned to underfund the system this fiscal year. The governor has also called for another round of pension and benefits reform.
"He (Christie) signed the document and then says, 'Well, what I signed wasn't legal.' It doesn't work that way," said Sweeney (D-West Deptford). "If you're word is no good, do you know how hard it is to negotiate future changes?"
To keep last fiscal year's budget and this year's spending plan in balance, Christie planned to slash the state's contribution to the public workers' pension system by almost $2.5 billion for the combined fiscal years. Last fiscal year, the state was supposed to contribute $1.6 billion, but Christie paid just $696 million. This fiscal year's payment was to be $2.25 billion, but the governor said he'll contribute $681 million.
Public sector unions sued in an effort to force Christie to make to full payment last year, but in June of 2014, a judge ruled the state did not have to do that because of the dire financial situation it faced. The unions are suing again. Oral arguments took place in January, but it was unclear when a ruling would be issued.
Although she said the state has a moral obligation to fully fund the pension system, State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) said a last minute budget shortfall made that impossible.
"There was no way to cut our way out," Beck said. "It (the full payment) squeezes literally everything else out of the budget."
If the state paid the $2.25 billion, the payment would be $3.7 in the next fiscal year, $4.5 billion the next year and $7 the year after that, Beck said. Beck said she's not sure the state is capable of making such a large payment.
Then math has not changed since the governor signed the law in 2011, so the escalating payment should come as no surprise to anyone, Sweeney said.
"We knew what we were walking into when we did it. I was in the room. We knew what we were dealing with. We looked each other in the eye and said we could do this," Sweeney said.
Lawmakers believed they could make the full payments at the time, Beck said, but she called last year a precursor to asking the question of "can we or can't we?" The issue is not strictly partisan.
""Everyone knew in 2011 what the pension obligation would be. We needed to make the payment last year and we need to make the payment this year," said Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Parsippany).