With a second court battle over the state’s failure to put up a full payment into its public pension and benefits system pending, Democratic leaders of the legislature are looking to send the judge presiding over the case a statement that they’re on the side of the plantiffs.
In a amicus brief made public today, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) announced that they plan to officially inform Superior Court Mary Jacobson of their disapproval of the state’s failure to make the payments, a move that has had Gov. Chris Christie’s administration and public labor unions at loggerheads in recent months. The two first went to court over the issue last year, when Christie decided against making a scheduled payment into the fund for fiscal year 2015.
Christie’s proposed budget for the coming year included another partial payment into the fund, driving public labor organizations — such as the Communication workers of American, the AFL-CIO, and the New Jersey Education Assocation — to file second joint suit against the state for FY2016.
“We want to make it clear to the Court that the administration’s refusal to make the legally required pension payments violates the law and disregards legislative intent,” Sweeney and Prieto said in a joint statement today. “The pension reform bill approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor is a law he can’t choose to ignore. He has a legal, constitutional and contractual obligation to make the required payments.”
Last time around, Jacobson sided with unions in ruling that the state has a constitutional obligation to its public employees under the 2011 pen/ben reform law signed by Christie and the Democratic legislature. Christie has since argued that the state’s shaky fiscal footing requires further reforms to the system, and has proposed a pension overhaul plan that would freeze the state’s current system and create a new one to be possibly managed by unions like the NJEA.
That plan too has been met with criticism, particularly from police and fire unions, who’s funds their representatives argue are largely solvent and in no need of reform.
Supporters of upholding the 2011 law and making the scheduled payments, including Sweeney and Prieto, contend that if the governor had followed the funding timetable as required by the statute, the state be “well on the way to restoring the financial strength of the pension system.”
“The law explicitly creates a contractual obligation to make the contributions,” Sweeney and Prieto said today. “The Legislature met the requirements of the law by appropriating $2.25 billion to make the payment for Fiscal Year 2015. The governor chose to veto the funding and to slash the contribution by $1.57 billion with a line-item veto.
“By appropriating the full payment, the Legislature met the requirements of the State Constitution. The governor can’t veto the constitution,” they added.
The court date over the FY2016 payment is scheduled for May 12, and Sweeney and Prieto said they plan to submit their amicus brief by that time. A Supreme Court hearing on Jacobson’s ruling on the FY2015 payment, which the Christie administration appealed earlier this year, will be held on May 6.
“We support the unions in their lawsuit to force the administration to obey the law. The workers are keeping their part of the agreement with increased contributions, the governor should do the same,” they said. “The continuing refusal by the administration to make the required payments is making the situation worse. The state’s credit rating has been downgraded a record nine times, the state’s fiscal stability has been undermined and members of the pension system are forced to live with the instability of an underfunded plan.”
Unions behind the lawsuit sounded off as well.
“The fact that legislative leaders Sweeney and Prieto are joining the unions’ lawsuit as a friend of the court strengthens our already strong case,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, which represents one million union members and their families. “By committing to the lawsuit, the legislative leaders are demonstrating their belief that the governor must adequately fund the pension system to ensure its long-term viability. A superior court judge and three Wall Street ratings agencies agree.”