Gov. Chris Christie returns to New Jersey from the presidential campaign trail to bear down on next year’s budget and show his plans to fund the public pension, but unions and his Democratic rivals are already looking beyond the former Republican White House hopeful’s final two years in office.
Christie, who is set to unveil his second-to-last spending plan as governor on Tuesday, ended his presidential campaign after finishing sixth in New Hampshire, where he concentrated most of his efforts.
Democratic lawmakers have started looking ahead to 2017, when a new governor will be elected, pushing forward a proposal to amend the constitution to require quarterly pension payments.
It’s a decision that public unions say was forced by Christie’s reneging on a 2011 law that proscribed specific yearly payments into the pension.
Christie backed away from those payments after revenues dropped below projections in the previous two fiscal years. The state Supreme Court declined to force him to make the payments in the exact amounts called for in the statute.
In the $33.8 billion 2016 budget, Christie committed to a $1.3 billion payment and set the stage for a roughly $1.8 billion payment in the coming fiscal year. That’s about $2 billion below the level called for in 2011.
But Democrats signaled their support for Christie’s latest funding schedule in the language of their proposed constitutional amendment as a way to compel Christie to live up to his new funding promise.
Political scientist Ben Dworkin, of Rider University, described the pension debate as a political “theatrical exercise” that looks likely to end without any new agreements or a long-term solution.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union and an opponent of the governor, and other public sectors argue that trust between them and Christie has all but eroded.
“What he has taught us is even if there’s a deal, he doesn’t have to live up to it,” said Communication Workers of America New Jersey political director Seth Hahn.
The proposed amendment will result in ruin for the state, Christie has argued, by strait-jacketing a governor’s ability to prioritize funding in the budget. Democrats can get the question on the ballot without Christie’s input if they pass the measure again this year.
“Public pensioners would be a special class of citizens whose retirement is protected, protected above all other public concerns,” Christie said in January.
A commission empaneled by Christie last year recommended another overhaul and said that unions and Democrats are missing an opportunity to rework a system that could be depleted for public school teachers and state employees by the next decade.
Those changes would include turning the benefits into a 401(k)-style plan rather than a traditional pension, reducing the quality and cost of health benefits and turning control of the plans over to the unions, rather than leaving them under state management. Last week, the commission issued a new report saying cutting health benefits could save the state more than $2 billion.
Democrats and unions balked at the proposal and discussions have stalled over the past year.
Legislative leaders are skeptical, even with Christie poised to return full-time, about wiping the pension slate clean. Senate President Steve Sweeney says he wants the governor to engage on the issue but sees it as unlikely.
“What I’m hoping to hear I know he won’t say,” Sweeney said.