The poor condition of New Jersey’s public-employee pension system may not be getting a ton of attention in key state Assembly contests this fall, but it’s an issue that nonetheless seems to be having a big influence on the 2015 elections.
The reason why lies in pivotal votes on pension funding that were cast in Trenton several months ago — and a flood of money now coming in to groups with close ties to labor, including the New Jersey Education Association, that are supporting the Democratic candidates who tried to get more money into the pension system.
Much is at stake this year with all 80 seats in the Assembly on the ballot next month, and with Democrats seeking to keep or even build upon their 15-seat majority.
The NJEA, the state’s largest teachers union, made no secret over the summer when it issued endorsements that its decision to support all Democrats this year came down to that party’s backing of a pension-funding plan that lived up to promises that were made in a major 2011 pension reform law.
Though some of the retirement funds that make up the overall $80 billion 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 and hasn’t.
But Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said during a news conference yesterday that there’s more to the debate than just the decision over how much state funding should go into the pension system.
By supporting more robust pension funding, Bramnick said Democrats are really calling for higher taxes even if they aren’t saying it in campaign commercials — and even if Republicans don’t have the campaign cash to have a public debate with the Democrats on equal footing.
“I get all the political maneuvering, but there has to be a long-term solution,” Bramnick said. “All we have here is
multimillion-dollar negative campaigning that in my judgment is to try and silence dissent.”
Republicans, he said, support new changes that would make employee benefits more affordable for taxpayers. He cited a series of recommendations made public earlier this year by a panel of benefits experts Gov. Chris Christie convened to study the issue.
Those recommendations included freezing the current pension system in favor of a new retirement plan with some features of a 401(k), as well as giving employees less-expensive health coverage and using the savings to pay down the pension debt.
Bramnick called on the media to help get out the other side of the story and then “let the chips fall where they may.”
Bramnick was responding to new campaign-finance data released this week by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission that shows super PACs and other outside groups not directly linked to a candidate here have already spent more than $5 million in New Jersey this year, largely to help the Democratic candidates.
Democratic candidates, meanwhile, have spent another nearly $5 million themselves, according to the ELEC report.
By contrast, the Republican Assembly candidates this year have spent $1.6 million, and the GOP is receiving no help from super PACs, which are groups allowed under federal campaign-finance law that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they don’t coordinate directly with a candidate thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.
Democrats as a group in New Jersey voted in June in favor a new state budget that would have propped up the pension system, which is roughly $40 billion in debt, with new revenue from proposed tax hikes on corporations and individual earnings over $1 million. Their budget would have maintained pension funding at the levels promised in a major 2011 bipartisan reform law that mandated a series of increased state contributions into the pension system over a seven-year term.
[related]But Republican lawmakers sided with Christie, who is also a Republican, in opposing the increased taxes called for by Democrats.
They had the freedom to ignore the 2011 reform law, which also required employees to pay more, after the state Supreme Court said in a ruling issued in early June that only state voters can authorize the kind of government-funding commitments that were promised in the reform law, which is known as Chapter 78.
Without the increased state funding, the future of the pension system, which covers an estimated 770,000 current workers and retirees, remains very much on shaky ground.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) said the issue this year really boils down to Democrats “keeping their word.”
Greenwald said he and other Democrats who voted for the 2011 reform law were criticized by the NJEA and other public-worker unions at the time, but have now earned back their support. Assembly Republicans were among those who voted for the 2011 reform law, but then haven’t stood behind it when it comes to funding.
“Jon Bramnick’s message doesn’t resonate,” he said. “He and the members of their party broke their promise.”
“The public isn’t stupid,” Greenwald said. “We kept our word and that’s what people want.”
The new data released by ELEC this week showed a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC called General Majority has spent more than $1 million this year to help Democrats in three legislative districts where the closest races are expected, the 1st and 2nd districts in South Jersey and the 38th district in north Jersey. The super PAC has been boosted by a $2.75 million contribution from a super PAC affiliated with the New Jersey Education Association called Garden State Forward, according to ELEC.
Steve Baker, a spokesman for the teachers’ union, said yesterday that the Assembly contests this year are not about the union, but about whether lawmakers should be held accountable for breaking their promises.
“I think that this election is from our perspective an opportunity to have a debate on this fundamental issue,” Baker said. “(Bramnick) may not think that’s the real issue.
Baker also said the union “makes no apologies” for elevating the pension issue this year and isn’t seeking to send a message to lawmakers that teachers in New Jersey remain a force to be reckoned with.
“We’re hoping to come out of this election with a Legislature that will keep the promises that New Jersey has made,” he said.
Officials from General Majority did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.