Sweeney stands by pension plan in face of harsh Christie criticism
Tuesday night, on the December edition of Townsquare Media’s "Ask the Governor" program, Gov. Chris Christie unleashed a tirade of criticism on State Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-Thorofare) plan to require quarterly payments into the public employees’ pension system through a constitutional amendment.
Christie blasted the idea, but at a State House press conference Thursday, Sweeney stood by his proposal and fired back at Christie.
“This is not about more reforms. This is about living up to a promise made to the taxpayers of New Jersey, a promise that in 2011 the reforms would deliver a savings of an estimated $121 billion,” said Sweeney.
According to Sweeney, his proposal would save taxpayers an estimated $8.5 billion and would slash the pension system’s unfunded liability by a projected $4.9 billion over three decades.
“This is the most fiscally irresponsible thing that anybody in the state’s proposed,” said Christie during "Ask the Governor." “This is a $3 billion tax increase coming your way. Get your hands on your wallets because you’re the people they (Democrats) are coming for.”
At his Thursday press event Sweeney accused the governor of getting his math wrong. He said the two are not $3 billion apart.
“The administration says, ‘Where’s the money coming from?’ Well, in your own budget projection, you’re putting $2.4 billion in or are you not doing that? Is that a farce or is it real? I based this off the governor’s projections. We’re $600 million apart,” Sweeney insisted.
That $600 million difference could be made up with an increase in the income taxes paid by millionaires in New Jersey, and that would be pursued, according to Sweeney. Christie has vetoed a millionaires’ tax hike four times since taking office in 2010.
“Making quarterly payments doesn’t save money, Steve, if you don’t have it,” the governor said Tuesday night. “Where are you getting the $3 billion dollars? Don’t give me this crap about quarterly payments. If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.”
The governor press staff did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment on Sweeney’s statements.
Also on Thursday, the New Jersey Business & Industry Association came out in opposition of Sweeney’s plan.
“Requiring these payments, totaling several billion dollars a year, would make an already difficult budget process even more challenging,” Michele Siekerka, NJBIA president and CEO, said in an emailed statement. “Placing this mandate in the constitution ties the hands of future Governors and Legislatures who must always balance the priorities of the state against available revenues when putting together each year’s budget.”
In a statement to New Jersey 101.5 Thursday afternoon, Christie's office said the governor's plan "actually includes recommendations from an independent group of experts – persons not in the pocket of the public sector unions – to fix our broken system and make it more affordable for taxpayers.
"Additionally, the governor’s plan does not rely on the massive tax increases and fairy dust that are central to the Senate president’s plan," Christie's office said.
Following Thursday's press conference, the State Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved the measure 8-5 along party lines.
“The constitutional amendment was the right thing to do in 2011, and it is the right thing to do now,” Sweeney said.
Prior to the vote, NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer addressed the committee, urging the members to pursue the fiscally responsible funding practices included in the amendment.
"The amendment before you is designed to enforce the discipline that our governor lacks, so New Jersey can do what we all agree is necessary. This amendment provides the legal framework to compel Gov. Christie and all who come after him to finally obey the 2011 pension funding law," Steinhauer told lawmakers. "The amendment is also fiscally responsible. It does not add a single cent to the state’s pension liability. In fact, it would quickly begin to reduce that liability, providing real relief to taxpayers concerned about the fiscal future of our state."
Below is a video of Christie's comments on the issue during the December edition of Ask The Governor.
Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.