BY DECLAN O’SCANLON It is distressing that even now – with New Jersey on the brink of fiscal disaster – powerful people in Trenton, with the ability to get real things done, are more interested in gamesmanship and political advantage than in simply fixing things.
There is not a caring resident in New Jersey who isn’t aware that one of the biggest threats to our State’s fiscal health is the mess that has become our pension system. For more than a decade our State’s leaders – governors and complicit legislative leaders – have simultaneously increased promised benefits – to buy the votes of workers – and failed to make billions of dollars of payments to cover those promised benefits – using the money instead to buy votes of other constituencies.
Of course these disastrous policies couldn’t go on forever and our New Jersey house of cards has begun to crumble. This past week the first major consequence of our years of irresponsibility hit home – our bond rating was lowered which will increase our borrowing costs and drain more of our precious resources. If we don’t fix our pension system quickly and comprehensively we will face more consequences – skyrocketing taxes, drastically slashed pension payouts to workers and an economy hobbled by a government that will soon more mirror that of a third world county than one of the United States.
Thankfully Governor Christie isn’t interested in the fleeting benefits of kicking the can down the road and he has no intention of tolerating such irresponsible behavior from our legislative leaders either. The days of timid action producing meaningless reforms by people with big mouths – the better for uttering self congratulations – and long arms – the better for patting themselves on the back – are over.
I am a sponsor of the package of pension reforms put forward by the administration. The legislation is straight forward – increases in pension contributions, increases in the time that workers must serve, and the age they must attain, before qualifying for full pensions, elimination of cost of living increases and a rollback of the biggest, arbitrary and unfunded benefit increases in years past. If we take these actions now we can fix the system – to the benefit of public workers and taxpayers – and avoid the drastic cuts in benefits and crushing taxes that will be necessary should we fail to act.
Our reform proposals are not an attack on teachers, firemen, police or other public employees. On the contrary – our public workers arguably have the most at stake if our pension system collapses. Public workers should not be fooled into joining what we know will be a knee jerk reaction by some to fight this – or any – reform. Success in thwarting reform will only mean tougher measures, or a collapse of the system, later.
The counter reform proposal put forth by Democrat legislative leaders is another, unfortunate example of what has become a sting of “RINO” (reform in name only) proposals they’ve put forward during the past year. We haven’t seen any remotely accurate projections of the actual results of their proposals and we won’t – because their proposals aren’t designed to solve the problem, they’re designed to fool the public into giving them credit for trying. These same legislative leaders have held up reform over the past half year with the inane threat that they wouldn’t move on reform until the governor made a payment into the system. That’s like a doctor refusing to remove a cancer patient’s tumor until the patient promises to start eating vegetables and excercising. Don’t get me wrong – we must make payments, but every day we delay dealing with the reforms we know we must make adds to the cost and pain of the final remedy – and brings us closer to the point of no return.
The suggestion inherent in this make-a-payment-or-we’ll-hold-up-reform challenge is that somehow the Governor took some pleasure in the choice not to make a pension payment last year. Here’s a news flash – the governor didn’t use the money meant for the pension system on wild parties on the roof of the Statehouse. He was dealing with the largest deficit in our State’s history – left to him by the irresponsible polices of the very same people now shamelessly, desperately trying to turn the blame away from themselves. Governor Christie has now pledged to start making regular payments and has also proposed comprehensive reforms that will fix the system. That has never happened before. The people carping now had complete control of our government over the past 8 years and condoned the failure to make payments into the system (in what were demonstrably better economic times) and put forward no reforms, putting the fiscal well-being of every New Jersey taxpayer and public worker in grave danger. I won’t hold my breath waiting for their acknowledgement of responsibility. But this administration – and responsible members of the legislature on both sides of the aisle – won’t let them continue to get away with the shameful, deceitful behavior that has brought us so close to the edge of fiscal disaster.
Declan O’Scanlon of Little Silver is the Assembly Republican Budget Officer