Following years of Democratic governors James McGreevey and Jon Corzine’s financial mismanagement, and with little more than a month in office, New Jersey governor Chris Christie is getting down to business, prodding the NJ democrat-controlled state senate to pass measures to close its budget deficit.
New Jersey’s Senate passed a package of bills aimed at closing a $34.4 billion hole in the state pension by excluding part-time workers from the system, reducing benefits and forcing teachers to pay more for health care.
The three measures would shift future employees who work less than 35 hours a week into a defined contribution plan modeled after private retirement options rather than the existing system, which guarantees monthly benefits. The package heads to the Assembly. Both houses are controlled by Democrats.
“If this was a private business, we’d have already declared bankruptcy,” said Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, a Democrat from Edison who sponsored the bill ending pensions for part-time workers. “We’ve got to do something.”
New Jersey’s pension gap nearly tripled since 2004 as previous governors skipped contributions while expanding benefits. The state’s retirement-funding gap is the second- biggest among U.S. states, with Illinois having the largest deficit at $55 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Nationwide, states face a $1 trillion pension shortfall, the Pew Center on the States said in a Feb. 18 report.
Christie’s administration would need to make a $2.65 billion payment in the fiscal year starting July 1 in order to fully fund the system. The state faces a budget deficit of more than $11 billion, the largest gap per taxpayer of any state in the country, according to Christie.
“Make no mistake about it, pensions and benefits are the major driver of our spending increases at all levels of government — state, county, municipal and school board,” Christie said in a Feb. 11 speech to a joint session of the Legislature.
Former Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat defeated in November by Christie, refused in 2006 to support legislation from members of his party that would have limited pensions to full-time workers.
While it is too early to tell whether these measures will save the Garden State from financial disaster, at least it’s a start.
“I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as ABC, hold up truth to your eyes.” Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776
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