Christie’s budget address brings more pain
published at Socialist Organizer
New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, in his February, 2015, budget address, revealed his intent to inflict further benefit cuts on public employees. The day before his speech, a judge ordered Christie to pay $1.57 more into the pension fund — money he withheld last year in defiance of a 2011 agreement. Public sector unions had sued Christie to enforce their rights under the 2011 deal.
Superior Court Judge, Mary Jacobson, ruled that the State can’t “simply walk away from its financial obligations, especially when those obligations were the State’s own creation.” Last year, Christie reduced the planned contribution from $1.7 billion to $700, million. This year, he wants to reduce the contribution from the agreed-upon $2.25 billion to $681 million.
In his speech, Christie claimed that he had reached an historic agreement with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) on a “Roadmap to Reform” that would solve the long-term crisis of the pension and health benefits system. Part of this solution would require more cuts in benefits and the formation of a new pension plan for educators — splitting the public sector pension system. Christie’s proposed solution would set up a “cash-balance pension plan” — a hybrid scheme with features of a defined benefit plan and a 401K plan.
The pension plan is now funded at just 44% of the level necessary for a secure retirement for public servants. Governors and the State Legislature have underfunded the pension system for years, using the “savings” to create the appearance of balanced budgets and then blaming public employees for the crisis of the system.
The head of the NJEA, Wendell Steinhauer, in a statement released after the budget speech, said that there had been “no deal” with Christie, only the agreement to continue discussions of a framework. He referred to the Governor’s claim of a deal as “disappointing.”
The proposed budget also revealed cuts in direct aid from the state to public colleges and universities. Christie’s budget document states that about “2.6% of total support will shift from direct operating support to fund increases in fringe benefits costs…” Rutgers will lose 3.73% and the New Jersey Institute of Technology will face a shortfall of 5.98%. Other public colleges and universities will also experience similar cuts.
When Christie took office, he unleashed an attack on public employees, with the cooperation of a wing of the Democratic Party led by Senate President, and Ironworkers Union bureaucrat, Steve Sweeney, a tool of the powerful South Jersey Democratic Party machine.
Christie’s earlier attack on New Jersey public workers mirrored similar attacks on public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere. State workers were forced to pay higher pension contributions, increased health insurance premiums and higher co-pays for medical and dental care. State worker pay was frozen and the retirement age was raised to 65. Education funding, school lunch programs and community legal programs also suffered massive cuts. New hires at the State have a 401K instead of a pension.
Both Christie’s budget address, and his recent state of the state speech, focused on few policy specifics, with a lot of generalities and tough talk designed to make him look Presidential. It’s clear that the Governor’s 2016 primary season ambitions are his main concern and that he’s willing to ride roughshod over the working people of the state to get to the White House. Christie spent all or part of 137 days last year traveling out of state at a cost to the taxpayer in excess to $1 million for his security detail alone. These trips include trips relating to his duties as head of the Republican Governors Association and trips to football games to hang out with his fat cat friend, and contributor, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Speaking at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Christie tried to posture as a hardline conservative and burnish his Tea Party credentials by attacking Jeb Bush as an elitist. The Republican right wing had attacked his conservative bona fides after he appeared alongside President Obama after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey shore.
Christie also sent mixed signals about his veto of family planning funding. At CPAC, he claimed he had defunded family planning because of his “pro-life” convictions, not because of budget constraints as he stated at the time he cut funding. His attempts to posture to the right failed to convince the hardcore reactionaries of CPAC. He finished behind Rand Paul, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Bush in a Presidential straw poll.