‘A reckoning is coming': Report says NJ finances still in crisis
TRENTON – A new research report by a conservative think tank reaches an old conclusion: New Jersey state government hasn’t made much progress addressing its long-term fiscal crisis in the last decade.
The report released by the Garden State Initiative revisits the topics in a State Budget Crisis Task Force report from 2012 and concludes the financial challenges haven’t been meaningfully addressed, though it credits Gov. Phil Murphy with making a full pension payment this fiscal year, amounting to $6.9 billion – the state’s first full contribution in about a quarter-century.
Former Gov. Tom Kean said the state can’t continue on the path it's now on and must correct course.
He said there’s no point blaming anyone and that he isn’t blaming Murphy or the current Legislature. But he says they’re responsible for starting to correct things.
“Someday, all these problems are going to come down on somebody’s head,” Kean said. “Not this year, not next year, probably not the year after. But a reckoning is coming. And at that point, there will be a lot of blame to go around to a lot of people.”
Billions in obligations
Thomas Healey, a co-author of the report and senior fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the state faces $130 billion in unfunded pension obligations, $50 billion for health benefits for retired public workers and $50 billion in infrastructure needs.
“The goal should be fiscal stability. And the goal should be to be in the top 10% of all states, not where we are in the bottom 10%,” said Healey, who said Illinois is the only state that now pays higher costs to borrow than New Jersey.
The pension deficit of nearly $131 billion as of fiscal 2019 was actually down from a peak of $168 billion in fiscal 2017, according to the report, which cited annual state financial reports.
The cost of construction
Report co-author Thad Calabrese, an associate professor of public and nonprofit financial management at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said that to deal with the infrastructure needs, the state needs to get a handle on construction costs.
Calabrese said construction in New Jersey can cost four to six times the national average and exceeds neighboring peer states. He said one change should be to limit capital spending to brick-and-mortar improvements and not operating costs, such as salaries.
“Citizens should demand that money that’s authorized for capital be used only for capital purposes,” Calabrese said. “That may seem quite obvious, but it’s not what’s been happening for quite a long time in the state.”
Healey chaired the Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission under Gov. Chris Christie, and the report emphasizes some of the same sorts of changes Christie sought in that area, such as raising the retirement age for public workers and increasing workers’ contributions toward pensions and health benefits.
The report also suggests a “defined contribution system” of health care benefits in which retirees are given a predetermined amount of money to purchase the benefits they choose.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.