Top Democratic lawmaker says NJ’s a mess: ‘I’m not raising taxes — I’m done’
TRENTON — The state's top Democrat in the Legislature wants New Jersey voters and taxpayers to rise up and say: We're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore!
State Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who assembled a bipartisan economic and fiscal policy work group that issued recommendations this summer for pension and budget reforms, said that it’s become crystal clear that changes must be made because “our pension and health care system is not sustainable anymore, and raising taxes in this state is not the answer. This is a state that has a tax problem.”
He said state lawmakers have been coming up with makeshift solutions that move money around to be able to make a partial payment to the state’s pension system and balance the budget. But the state faces at least $142 billion in long-term pension liabilities and $80 billion in unfunded post-retirement medical liabilities.
“When you have a problem and you don’t fix it, it doesn’t go away, it gets worse. It really gets worse," he said last week during a forum sponsored by the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants.
He pointed out the amount of money that’s required to be paid into the public worker pension system will more than double over the next four years, from $3.2 billion to $6.6 billion.
But “we don’t have any revenue," he said. "Our budget is $37.5 billion now. Every dollar has been committed.”
“We want to spend more money on transit, on schools, pre-K — they’re all noble causes, but where does it come from?”
So what do we do? Sweeney said “we can’t tax any more."
"I’m not raising taxes; I’m done. We’re either going to fix this or we’ll just deal with the realities of the dollars that we have, like business owners do.”
Earlier this summer, the panel's Path to Progress report included these recomendations:
• Shifting state and local public sector workers with less than five years of service out of the current pension system and placing them in a hybrid system that would resemble a 401(k).
• Changing the level of health benefits for public workers from “platinum platinum plus” to “gold.”
• Requiring retirees to pay the same percent of their health-care premiums they paid when they were in the workforce.
Sweeney has been a state legislator since 2002. He considered running for governor to succeed Chris Christie but backed out when it became clear that Phil Murphy already had secured enough support from Democratic Party leaders. Since Murphy's election, the progressive governor's biggest roadblocks for his agenda have been set down by Sweeney and fellow Democratic lawmakers.
Sweeney noted New Jersey has one of the highest tax rates, “and if we don’t start reversing this and going in a different direction, and we don’t do it now, this state is in serious financial trouble. We’ll continue to drop.”
To try and generate support and momentum for the changes put forth in the Path to Progress report, Sweeney said he’s been meeting “with mayors and freeholders and county officials around the state. We’ve been meeting with business groups, I need to engage the public on this.”
“It’s like the old 'Network' movie, where the anchor gets up [and says] 'I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.' I need to get the public’s anger focused on the fact that there is no solutions coming out of Trenton," he said.
Borrowing a page from Christie, Sweeney said he will start doing town halls.
“I’m going to be getting out there, getting as much attention, getting it out on social media, just trying to tie in to the public because elected officials respond to taxpayers.”
Sweeney noted $20 billion in wealth has left the state over the past eight years and the trend will continue if the state adds taxes on the rich — something progressive Democrats, including Murphy, support.
He said New Jersey didn’t wind up in such a horrible fiscal mess by chance. It happened “by politicians working and screwing around with the pension system, and it created such a hole that we can’t come back from it without really a whole new structure.”
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com