Now or much, much later? Candidates differ on pace for NJ pension reform
The major-party candidates for governor promised vastly different timetables for seeking structural changes to New Jersey’s underfunded pension funds in their final debate before the Nov. 7 election.
New Jersey’s public worker pension funds are more than $66 billion underfunded, and the yearly payments into them from the state budget should be more than $5 billion.
Democratic nominee Phil Murphy – who headed a panel that studied the pension funds 12 years ago, under then-Gov. Richard Codey – said Wednesday evening that until the contributions reach that level, possible changes shouldn’t be broached with the unions.
“We’ve got to get back to fully funding the pension plan. Only then can you start talking about what else you’re going to do,” Murphy said in the debate at William Paterson University in Wayne.
“If you’ve been left at the altar 20 years in a row and most notably in the past eight years, and the only answer is, ‘Hey, if you concede a little bit more, we might find a way to find more money,’ that’s unacceptable,” Murphy said. “The state must meet its obligations.”
The current payment is half of what actuaries recommend, and at the current pace a full contribution wouldn't begin being made under fiscal 2023. By then, the judges' pension fund could be out of funds, with some of the state's other funds within five years of insolvency.
Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said changes to benefits can’t wait, at least for new workers.
She said she would support giving control of the police and fire pension to a board controlled by those workers’ unions, an idea Gov. Chris Christie vetoed this year.
“Then we have to sit down and admit what we cannot deny, and that is that the pensions for the teachers and other public sector unions is broke,” Guadagno said.
“What we’re doing right now in New Jersey is hiring 21-year-old teachers and telling them that they will have a pension in 25 or 30 years,” Guadagno said. “I would sit down, look at the Tom Byrne/Healey pension commission report and start negotiating there fairly, respectfully and openly.”
The tone was edgier, with more interruptions, than at last week’s debate. Little new ground was broken, with the candidates rehashing exchanges about Christie, marijuana, making New Jersey a "sanctuary state" for undocumented immigrants and NJ Transit.
Both candidates said they’d support expanding casino gaming to North Jersey. Both said they would consider tax credits to offset the cost to commuters if congestion pricing comes to Manhattan. Murphy said he’d support a package that includes tax incentives to woo Amazon’s headquarters.
Property taxes came up in three separate questions – one about consolidating and sharing services among local governments, one about the interest arbitration cap, and one about Guadagno’s property tax plan.
Guadagno said the "circuit breaker" she’s proposing, which would cap school taxes at 5 percent of a taxpayer’s household income, would provide an average benefit of $800. It would cost the state $1.5 billion, which is around 3 percent of the state budget.
Guadagno says the money would come from auditing all of state government, which was last done in New Jersey in 1983 and saved $100 million. She said recent audits in two other states saved $2 billion apiece.
“I have a plan to fix property taxes in New Jersey. Phil Murphy does not,” Guadagno said.
Murphy said the key is to fully fund schools. He said an audit is a good idea and questioned why there wasn’t one in the nearly eight years Guadagno has served as lieutenant governor.
“I don’t think a fancy title, a gimmick, the circuit-buzzer – it sounds like an overstock item at Crazy Eddie’s, that’s not a plan,” Murphy said.