In his continuing efforts to reign in state spending, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has once again angered union leadership, now drawing fire over his plan to roll back public pension benefits.
On Monday, Christie unveiled his proposal to reduce benefits and increase public employees' contributions, claiming the cuts will help the Garden State's budget crisis and save the pension funds in the long-run. In response, unions didn't hesitate to object, saying the state should honor all past pension agreements.
Under Christie's plan, the state would repeal a 9 percent increase in benefits and eliminate automatic cost of living adjustments. The plan also proposes to raise the state's retirement age to 65 from 60. Christie says he's looking to ease the state's cost burden by reducing pension payouts to future retirees and hopes to save the pensions in the long-run by requiring employees to start contributing more of their own earnings to their individual pension funds.
Christie took to the airwaves Wednesday to help sell his plan to the public. In an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, Christie said "The system is completely out of control, and we are moving toward insolvency if we do not deal with the long-term obligations that the state has."
"Now I know there are some public workers who aren't happy about it today. But 10 years from now, when you have a pension to collect and health benefits to collect, you are going to be looking for my address to send me a thank-you note," Christie says.
Unions and Democrats in the state legislature have responded to Christie's plan by demanding that the state renew paying pension contributions after underfunding the system for years. But while Christie acknowledges the state's missed pension contributions as a serious problem, he says even if the state made its required pension payments, the state would still face some $85 billion in unfunded liabilities.
If all we do is pour money into a broken and failed system, that broken and failed system will swallow that money alive, and get hungrier for more." Christie said. "We can't afford to continue like that."
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, said he supports pension reform but not Christie's plan. In response, Sweeney has threatened to block any pension system reform bills until the state relieves the overburdened fund. "The state has to make their payments toward the pension too," he told Fox News. "When the governor says, 'Well, I'm not going to put any more money in the pension system because it's broke, does that make it any better?'"
Christie has been in a near-constant fight with unions since taking office earlier this year, but remains firm in his intent to cut government spending -- a move unions argue hurts the middle class. “Once again, Governor Christie is attacking middle class workers in New Jersey," says New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) president Barbara Keshishian. "His proposals for deep cuts in pensions and health benefits, combined with much higher costs taken out of the pockets of public employees, will hurt hundreds of thousands of working families."
At a packed senior citizen community center earlier this week, Christie compared his first eight months in office and his fight to fix the state's fiscal situation to arriving to a room after a big party. "There were a bunch of drunk people passed out on the floor, a whole bunch of empties lying around, broken dishes," Christie said. "So I showed up. Now I have two choices. Walk out, or clean up."
"We're going to clean up."