Governor Endorses Removing Gun Investments from Public Pension Funds

John Reitmeyer | August 9, 2019 | More Issues
Murphy offers no timetable, noting that Treasury officials are ‘going through some technical issues’ to determine how to achieve divestment

Credit: Twenty20
AR-15 assault rifle
New Jersey’s days of investing public-worker pension dollars in the gun industry may be numbered.

Gov. Phil Murphy became the latest public official to come out in favor of withdrawing public pension-system funds from investments in companies that manufacture guns or ammunition, telling reporters yesterday that he’s “all in for divesting.”

“As a values matter, count me in on getting out of these investments and starving these companies, particularly the bad actors,” Murphy told reporters following an unrelated event in Murray Hill.

When asked about moving toward full divestment, Murphy said Treasury officials were still “going through some technical issues” to determine “what we need to do to get to that point.”

The Department of Treasury estimates about $25 million in current pension-plan holdings are linked in some way to the gun industry. Those investments have faced increased scrutiny in recent days following the series of deadly mass shootings in other parts of the country.

Investment in one company sold off

Last year, New Jersey pension-fund managers sold off an investment in a company that manufactures semi-automatic weapons for civilian use following a gun massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Treasury officials have since said that no pension-fund assets are invested in any manufacturer of automatic or semi-automatic weapons sold for civilian use.

But some lawmakers want the state to go even further by prohibiting investments with any ties to the manufacturing of guns and ammunition. A bill introduced last year in the wake of the Parkland school massacre would outright ban such investments as a matter of law.

Murphy’s comments on the divestment issue came just a day after Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said during an interview with NJ Spotlight staffers that he opposes the investing of any public-worker pension dollars in the gun industry. Sweeney shared that opinion as he spoke about the recent mass shootings at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio. Those shootings left a combined 31 people dead.

The Senate president also said the state should exert pressure through its routine purchasing of firearms for state law-enforcement agencies to promote other gun-safety reforms, such as the manufacture of so-called smart guns that can only be discharged by their legal owners.

Fiduciary responsibility

New Jersey pension-fund managers have a general fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns for beneficiaries, and the state pension system is one of the nation’s worst funded public-worker retirement plans thanks to years of underfunding by the state. But state lawmakers have at times prohibited specific investments to prevent public-worker funds from being used to support certain activities (including banning investment in companies that have decided to boycott Israel to protest its treatment of Palestinians).

The measure seeking to ban the investment of any New Jersey pension-fund assets in companies making guns or ammunition was first introduced last year in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, FL. It would generally give pension-fund managers two years to shed any existing investments in a manufacturer of guns or ammunition, but it also provides some discretion to prevent a “premature or otherwise imprudent sale, redemption, divestment, or withdrawal of an investment.” The bill would also require officials to submit annual reports detailing compliance with the proposed gun-industry investment ban.

While no votes on the measure have been scheduled, the governor and Senate president coming out in favor of gun-industry divestment has given its advocates a reason to cheer. Only Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) has yet to weigh in, but a spokesman said yesterday that the divestment legislation is also now “under review” in the lower house as well.

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