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Opinion: Christie and Public Employee Unions — the More Things Change …

Christie looks as if he’s going to leave office much as he came in: battling the public unions over their pension and health benefits (again)

carl golden
Carl Golden

It appears increasingly likely that Gov. Chris Christie will exit his office in much the same manner as he entered it more than seven years ago — locked in combat with public-employee unions over their political activity in general and their resistance to changes in their pension and health benefits in particular.  

The ink had barely dried on his oath of office in January 2010 before Christie, promising that change had come to Trenton at long last, laid into the New Jersey Education Association leadership, characterizing them as bullies so accustomed to having their own way that they were incapable of accepting change.

It was a theme that ran through his two terms and spread eventually beyond the NJEA to include other labor organizations representing public employees.  

His most recent proposal to divert some $1 billion a year in state lottery proceeds to shore up the grossly underfunded public pension system drew a wait-and-see attitude from the Legislature, a willingness to discuss the idea once more details were offered.     While specifics remain scant, Christie recently suggested that the cash infusion would be part of a larger package that included “additional reforms.”

Drawing conclusions about ‘additional reforms’

Labor leaders immediately concluded that “additional reforms” was a euphemism for an increase in employee contributions and they would not consider it in any negotiations with the administration.       

Their interpretation is probably correct and recent history demonstrates they have reason to be suspicious.  

When the package of pension reforms was enacted in 2011, employee contributions were increased and cost-of-living adjustments for retirees were frozen in exchange for a commitment by the state that it would gradually increase its share to the system over a seven-year period to reach an acceptable level of solvency.  

Within two years, Christie — citing budgetary pressures and revenue shortfalls — sharply reduced the appropriation and his actions withstood a court challenge.      As a result, all that remains of the original legislation is greater employee contributions and the frozen COLA.

Union leaders argue that their members upheld their end of the bargain while Christie reneged on his. Some even speculated that the governor never intended to comply with the agreement, that he knew at the outset the state could not afford to do so, and that he would gamble on prevailing in any litigation.

In this historical light, the flat refusal of the unions to consider “additional reforms” is understandable.   

Despite the initial willingness to discuss the idea rather than dismissing it outright, legislative approval was problematic at best.  

Given that lottery proceeds are constitutionally dedicated to higher education and state institutions, any attempt to divert the revenue to other purposes would be vulnerable to a court challenge, even though the administration said it had devised a method to replace the lottery funds from other sources.

Budget gimmickry

Critics derided the replacement suggestion as the kind of budget gimmickry Christie himself is fond of ridiculing. 

Moreover, with the Democratic candidates for governor nearly unanimous in their support for a reinstatement of the income-tax surcharge on wealthy New Jerseyans and allocating the revenue to the pension system, there is no incentive for union leadership to come to the table and negotiate with Christie.  

Given the party’s level of optimism that they will win the governor’s office this November and retain solid control of the Legislature, the strategy of union leaders will be to simply wait it out and in 2018 their view will prevail and their members will be spared absorbing another financial hit.

Beyond that, though, if Christie insists on further employee concessions, the fate of his proposal is sealed.  

Union leadership will not budge from its position and there is no way Democratic legislators will turn their backs on as important a constituency as organized labor to throw in with a lame-duck Republican governor with an approval rating of 20 per cent.  

Seasoned pol that he is, Christie understands clearly indeed that his cause is hopeless absent a change of heart and backing off the prospect of requiring greater contributions from public employees.       

He can, however, accuse the unions of standing in the way of commonsense reforms to the system that could assure its stability for future generations of retirees.

He’s made that case before, calling them “pension pigs” whose sole interest is their own immediate financial health.

Unions argue in response that they have held up their end of the bargain while Christie has abandoned his and that they are being forced to pay dearly and unfairly to bail out a system that has been shoved to the edge of insolvency by the failure of administrations past and present to meet their funding obligations.

The state, they argue, should atone for the fiscal sins of the past, rather than the burden falling on the current workforce.

It’s clear an impasse has been reached and a resolution is unlikely.  

It’s equally as clear that the Christie administration’s relationship with public employee unions will end steeped in the same bitterness and rancor with which it began.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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