Citing New Jersey’s long history of public corruption, Sen. Jennifer Beck wants to make it easier for the state to strip corrupt officials of their full, taxpayer-funded pensions. Tougher rules could also ease the burden on taxpayers struggling to prop up New Jersey’s grossly underfunded public-employee pension system.
But Beck (R-Monmouth) has been unable to get Democrats who control the Senate to put her bill strengthening the state’s pension-forfeiture law up for a vote, even in committee. She’s also been trying to force a debate on the issue in the full Senate, but those efforts have also been rebuffed by Democratic legislative leaders.
The standoff between Beck and the Democrats has come as several other Republicans have sought in recent weeks to use the Senate’s procedural rules to compel consideration of a series of bills aimed at making New Jersey more affordable, including measures seeking to address transportation spending, affordable housing, and several other issues. But the Democrats have instead been prioritizing votes on a series of bills and nonbinding resolutions introduced in the wake of President Donald Trump’s recent executive actions, including on immigration and banning Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.
The jockeying between the two parties comes as all 120 seats in the Legislature will be on the ballot this November, and with Democrats currently holding a 24-16 majority in the Senate. The political back-and-forth is also providing an early glimpse of what will likely form part of the campaign strategies that will be used in the fall, with Democrats looking to seize on the Republican president’s deep unpopularity in New Jersey and Republicans countering with a message centered on state affordability issues.
A ‘slap in the face’ to law-abiding taxpayers
Beck — who is expected to face a tough re-election contest in her district this year against Democrat Vin Gopal — has been trying to get her pension-forfeiture bill moved out of committee for nearly a year. The bill would take the last version of pension-forfeiture law that was passed in 2008 a couple steps forward by expanding the list of crimes that could trigger full pension forfeiture and also by capturing convicted officials whose benefits were grandfathered under the 2008 law. She said she hasn’t received a really good answer from Democratic leaders to explain why the bill hasn’t even been posted for discussion in the Senate’s State Government Committee.
“I’m not sure what the reasoning is,” Beck said in an interview with NJ Spotlight earlier this week.
Although Beck’s bill was introduced and referred to the committee a year ago, her effort has received renewed attention in recent months in the wake of investigative reporting by the Asbury Park Press that revealed more than 40 convicted officials who are no longer in prison are now receiving taxpayer-funded pensions, costing New Jerseyans more than $1 million.
Beck called those pension payments “egregious” and a “slap in the face” to law-abiding taxpayers struggling to make ends meet.
“It’s really insulting, minimally, and wrong,” she said.
Democrats have flexed their majority, blocked GOP’s efforts
New Jersey’s pension system itself is also underfunded by at least $44 billion, and it was recently named by Bloomberg as the worst-funded state pension system in the country.
“This is an issue that isn’t new,” Beck said. “It is clearly a cost driver for residents of this state.”
Over the past two weeks, Beck and other Republican lawmakers have tried to utilize a little-exercised procedural rule to force votes in the full Senate on her bills and others by having them deemed the “Order of the Day.” On each occasion, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) has made motions to table the GOP’s efforts, and the Democrats have then flexed their voting majority to block the GOP’s efforts, effectively preventing their measures from being put up for debate.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) said that approach stands in “stark contrast” to the full debates that Weinberg and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) have allowed on the issues related to Trump’s recent executive actions.
Last week, the Senate passed resolutions that condemned Trump’s executive order on immigration and also emphasized public schools and universities in New Jersey are “safe zones” for student immigrants who fear their status could be challenged by federal agents.
Kean: ‘We’ve tried for years to move some of these bills’
Earlier this week, the Senate also voted on a bill that would prohibit the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from using its resources to help implement the travel ban that Trump ordered in late January for those coming into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries. The action, which is currently being blocked in federal court, also applies to all refugees from war-torn Syria, including women and children.
A vote on a bill that would see the state make up for any federal aid stripped from so-called sanctuary cities that harbor undocumented immigrants under another one of Trump’s executive orders that was scheduled for Monday was pulled back at the last minute.
Kean said the bills the Republicans have unsuccessfully attempted to force onto the voting agenda all cover New Jersey issues “that actually impact the property taxpayers.”
“We’ve tried for years to move some of these bills, and a number of others,” Kean Jr. said. “You’re seeing the contrast of what we have been talking about for the last several years.”
But Richard McGrath, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, defended his party’s actions by calling Trump’s executive actions “unconstitutional and divisive.”
“This is the most diverse state in the country and our diversity is part of our strength,” McGrath said. “Even Republicans should recognize that Mr. Trump’s actions are an assault on the rights and the values that define us as Americans.”
“These Republican legislators should join us in standing up to protect the people of New Jersey and to preserve our constitutional rights rather than attempting to avoid responsibility with these diversionary tactics,” he said.