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Politics at play in NJ’s latest pension reform push

In 2011, State Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) partnered with Gov. Chris Christie to usher through historic reforms to the public workers’ pension and health benefits system. The political landscape in New Jersey has changed dramatically over the last three years. The governor is calling for more reforms, but Sweeney won’t be in Christie’s corner this time.

NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney
State Sen. Pres. Steve Sweeney (David Matthau, Townsquare Media NJ)

“Christie is running for president. I think that’s pretty clear for anyone who has been watching the political scene here in New Jersey,” said Rider University political science professor Ben Dworkin. “He doesn’t want to be on record as supporting any big tax hike that would be necessary to pay the $2.5 billion or more that the state committed to paying back in 2011 toward the unfunded pension liability.”

The governor isn’t the only who might have aspirations for higher office. Sweeney has been mentioned as one of the frontrunners for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2017. He has to deal with a number of political factors because of that ambition, Dworkin said.

“One of the ways people will probably attack him (Sweeney) is for being too close to Chris Christie. People will attack Sweeney and call him ‘Christie light.’ A fight over the pension system and the obligations of the state is a way to distinguish himself,” Dworkin said.

The governor has made reforming the pension and health benefits system a priority. He established a commission to review the issue.

“We’re eventually going to have to deal with it, we dealt with it once in 2011, and we’re going to have to take another crack at it,” Christie said in early September. “We’ll just continue to go after that though in a really fact-based way, and let the facts speak for themselves, and then we’ll come up with some suggested solutions.”

In 2006, Sweeney first began calling for reforms and he repeatedly pointed out that fact in 2011, when he was asked why he was Christie’s ally at the time. When the governor announced the creation of the study commission in early August, Sweeney made his position clear in an emailed statement.

“The governor broke his promise to fund the pension system. The fact remains that the problems will be fixed if he simply keeps his word and provides the appropriate funding. Until the governor decides to keep that commitment, there will be no further discussion between us on pensions,” wrote Sweeney.

There is always wiggle room in politics because budgets have to be passed and deals have to be made, Dworkin said.

“For now, both Sweeney and Gov. Christie have political incentives that are driving them apart more than together,” Dworkin said.

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