The leader of the Assembly Republicans said he thinks pushing for public-employee pension reform can be part of a winning formula for the GOP this year as the party seeks to take back control of the Assembly with all 80 seats on the November ballot.
Yet Gov. Chris Christie has been calling all year for sweeping public-employee benefits cuts, and only 22 percent of the voters surveyed for a recent public-opinion poll said they agreed with the governor’s approach to New Jersey’s longstanding pension-funding problem.
But Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said yesterday that if Republicans are given the chance to fully debate the issue with their Democratic counterparts, they will be able to demonstrate to voters that the best way to address a pension system that’s $40 billion in debt is to enact new reforms.
“We’ll be able to prove to the average citizen that there is no choice but to begin reforms,” Bramnick said during a news conference held in the State House.
Pension reform may seem like an odd and complicated issue to try and win votes with, considering that New Jersey elections tend focus more on topics like education, the economy and property taxes.
But Christie has worked hard to elevate the public-employee benefits issue to one of statewide importance in recent years, making the case that the cost of worker pensions and health benefits has crowded out state funding for other priorities. A series of high-profile legal challenges of a 2011 bipartisan benefits-reform effort have also brought more statewide attention to the issue.
And pension funding has also served this year as a key factor for the powerful New Jersey Education Association as it’s weighed which candidates to endorse in the Assembly, which right now is controlled 48-32 by Democrats.
In fact, no Republican Assembly candidate won support from the union this year.
Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s government relations director, said the union has decided to back the lawmakers who fought this year for a full state pension payment from the Christie administration. Though some of the retirement funds that make up the overall pension system are in decent shape due to adequate local contributions, the teachers’ retirement system is among the worst funded because the state is supposed to cover the full employer contributions.
“That’s what it came down to in this election cycle,” Gold Schnitzer said. “At some point you have to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”But she also cautioned against reading the union’s endorsement list as only being about Republicans and Democrats. Some incumbent Democrats were also not endorsed, and in some districts the union is sitting out altogether.
“If you think this is partisan then you’re totally missing the point,” she said.
Still, Bramnick said Republican candidates are expecting an onslaught of negative ads this year funded by the union and its political-action committee.
[related]“This is really a fight between the special interest and the average taxpayers,” he said.
Christie, a second-term Republican who is now running for the GOP presidential nomination, has been pushing this year for a series of new benefits reforms, but he hasn’t had any success convincing Democrats to pass them.
Those new reforms include freezing the current pension system and moving employees into a new retirement plan with some features of a 401(k). Christie has also proposed offering employees less generous health coverage and using the savings to pay down the current pension system’s debt.
But Democrats who control both the Assembly and Senate have countered Christie by saying he should try harder to live up to the 2011 reforms, which included increased contributions from public workers and a promise to boost state pension payments as well.
And while workers have been paying more, Christie, citing state budget problems, has reduced the promised state payments by more than $2 billion over the past two fiscal years. The current fiscal year budget is also putting nearly $2 billion less than the amount called for in the reform law.
The state Supreme Court recently determined that New Jersey’s constitution only allows voters to make such long-term commitments, but the union still urged lawmakers to honor the funding promise in the latest state budget.
Christie, meanwhile, has also opposed tax hikes that Democrats passed in a bid to get more money into the pension system. And with no support from Republican lawmakers — Christie has never been successfully overridden since taking office in early 2010 — the larger pension payments were never made.
The results of a recent Rutgers-Eagleton Poll indicated only 22 percent of the New Jersey voters that were surveyed view Christie’s handling of the pension issue favorably. And that follows a Monmouth University Poll from last month that found only 19 percent of those surveyed believed public-employee benefits are too rich and should be cut.
But Bramnick said he thinks if voters get a fuller understanding of the benefits issue they’ll agree with him that reforms are in order.
And it’s more than just pension reform that’s at stake in the fall, he said. Bramnick pointed to a host of Republican-sponsored bills, including those that impact issues like property taxes, education, and jobs, that have stalled under the Assembly’s current Democratic leadership.
“None of them have been debated, none of them have been posted,” Bramnick said.
In response to Bramnick’s criticism, Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Assembly Majority, called the Assembly’s Republicans “the single largest impediment to a more affordable New Jersey.”
“They’ve voted against Democratic plans for middle-class property tax relief, women’s healthcare, higher wages, job creation, environmental protection, and college affordability, all while serving as loyal foot soldiers to a no-show governor,” he said.
“Despite their words, the only thing Assembly Republicans have worked to protect are tax breaks for the mega-rich,” Hester said. “Republicans can talk all they want, but Democrats will continue fighting for New Jersey’s working class.”