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Op-Ed: Partisan Politics Is Driving New Jersey Into Bankruptcy

We need leaders with the vision and will to reach agreement to address our pension and benefits liability before it sinks us all

NEW Joseph Basralian
Joseph Basralian

Last week, a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind center concluded, “New Jerseyans lack trust in either party to fix the state’s problems.”

We have arrived at a point in New Jersey where partisanship is not just unpopular. It’s unpatriotic. Politicians on the right and left are doing us an incalculable disservice by projecting their typical party doctrine onto the debate over New Jersey’s homegrown liability crisis. Partisanship is resulting in gridlock while our liabilities keep rising – fast.

We now face $194.5 billion in unfunded pension ($113.1 billion) and healthcare liabilities ($81.4 billion) to public employees, according to a New Jersey Watchdog analysis of state Treasury records this year.

That is about six times our annual state budget, or about $60,000 per household. There’s no wiggling out of it. Neither the courts, nor the municipal bond market, nor the U.S. Treasury will let us off the hook -- and besides, the money we owe is mostly to our neighbors in every community in New Jersey.

So, should we crank up taxes and suffer the possible side-effects of lower home values and a weaker state economy? Should we slash spending so severely that we destroy the quality of life and drive even more people out of the state? Should we attempt to stimulate our economy by dismantling protections to people, neighborhoods and clean water supplies? Should younger and new state employees face significantly reduced state promises?

Or will we be the first state in the nation to have a severe insolvency crisis, similar to Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing but on a far larger and more humiliating scale?

Republican and Democrat politicians – the ones we re-elect at a rate exceeding 90 percent – make matters worse every time we allow them to repeat their mantra of partisan solutions. After watching for nearly 20 straight years as politicians over-promised and underfunded, we know that bipartisan compromise is the only solution at this point. Yet no leader today is mustering the vision and rhetorical skills needed to make compromise politically possible.

For a brief window at the beginning of Gov. Chris Christie’s first term, he and the Democrats made some progress. That glimmer was snuffed out by a combination of things, including broken promises and Christie’s presidential ambition.

Before the memory of that glimmer is gone, we must rededicate ourselves to a spirit of compromise in order to save our state and our personal futures here.

There are many starting points available to politicians with courage, skill and a sense of moral duty to the people who elected them. For example, earlier this year, “A Roadmap to Resolution” was by published by the “nonpartisan” New Jersey Pension and Health Benefits Study Commission. It’s an Internet click away. Yet no report can ever replace pragmatic public servants sitting down and hashing out a compromise. We voters should not punish them for trying.

We must all take inspiration from history. In his 1948 State of the Union address, President Harry Truman told us, “The United States has become great because we, as a people, have been able to work together for great objectives even while differing about details.”

President Truman, of all people, could never be described as weak-willed.

Today, as then, much more is at stake than our economic future. Our liberty to live as we please – our freedom from debt and poverty to build the lives and communities we desire – depend once again on how well we work together.

Joseph Basralian lives in Chatham Township.

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