Judge says Christie could have done more on pension funding
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- A judge weighing whether she has the power to force Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature to make promised payments to public employee pension funds seemed on Thursday to reject a state administration lawyer's argument that there was no way to make the payments.
State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson raised her doubts during a daylong hearing on pension contributions.
Unions sued last year after Christie cut his planned contributions for two years amid a surprise tax revenue shortfall.
Reducing the payments came three years after Christie, a Republican, struck a deal with the Democrat-controlled Legislature to catch up pension payments, which have been skipped or skimped for decades. In return, public workers had their contributions increased, had cost-of-living pension increases suspended and had retirement ages raised.
Last year, the judge ruled that the state was contractually bound to make the full payments but that cutting back in 2014 was legal because it was an emergency. Lawmakers adopted a fiscal 2015 budget that called for raising income taxes on high earners and making full pension contributions. Christie vetoed that.
Because of that, the judge was skeptical of Assistant Attorney General Jean Reilly's assertion that there were not worthy ways to fund the pension. Reilly said actions including embargoing government employees or cutting social services would not have worked.
"But you can raise revenue," the judge said.
"But the governor cannot raise revenue by himself," Reilly responded. "He honestly believes, and he has for years, that the millionaires tax does not do what it's promised."
Most of the judge's most searing questions were directed at Reilly.
The judge also asked repeatedly about the lawyer's assertion that the 2011 law, signed by Christie, that labelled the full payments as a contractual right was not constitutional. She noted that the lawmakers went out of their way in 2011 to say that the state had a contractual obligation to make pension contributions to catch up for all the years when payments had been skipped or skimped.
Reilly responded: "It's unprecedented because it's unconstitutional to enforce."
Lawyers representing unions told the judge that the state did have choices for balancing the budget, especially for the current fiscal year, which runs through June, but that Christie ignored other options.
"This is not a reasonable reaction to a budget shortfall," lawyer Kenneth Nowak said. "This is a statement of principle."
Lawyers calling for the state to be forced to make the promised contributions warned that pension funds could start going insolvent within six years and that could come faster without more contributions to them.
The judge did not say when she would rule. But lawyers expect it will be before Feb. 24, when Christie is scheduled to present his proposal for the next state budget.
It's likely any decision will be appealed to a higher court.
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