Christie on Pension, Health Benefits Reform: 'No Magic Wand' (Video)
The governor spoke to a packed community center Wednesday.
With pension and health benefits reform fresh on the minds of teachers and other attendees at a packed Fair Lawn Community Center, Gov. Chris Christie used his town hall Wednesday to tout the legislation as bipartisan compromise.
Speaking with the backdrop of a "Doing the Big Things" banner, Christie said that while New Jersey citizens "continue to sit by and watch them accomplish nothing" on a national level, legislators in Trenton have put their partisan feelings aside to take steps toward bridging the state's $54 billion pension deficit and $67 billion health benefits shortfall.
Both systems were "headed for insolvency as early as 2018," Christie said. For those who criticize his "my way or the highway approach," the governor said that "facts are stubborn things."
"I don't like every compromise, but I was not sent here to pose and preen, I was sent here to govern," Christie said.
The State Senate approved S-2937 on Monday afternoon by a margin of 24-15, and the legislation goes before the Assembly on Thursday. The bill makes various changes to the manner in which the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF), the Judicial Retirement System (JRS), the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS), the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS), and the State Police Retirement System (SPRS) operates and to the benefit provisions of those systems.
Increases in the employee contribution rates to pension funds are as follows: from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent, plus an additional 1 percent phased-in over seven years beginning in the first year, meaning after 12 months, after the bill’s effective date for TPAF and PERS (including legislators, Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) members, and workers compensation judges); from 3 percent to 12 percent for JRS phased-in over seven years; from 8.5 percent to 10 percent for PFRS members and members of PERS Prosecutors Part; and from 7.5 percent to 9 percent for SPRS members.
Christie hearkened back to his January "State of the State" address, when he said it was "time for New Jersey to do the big things." The "big things" were getting the pension and benefits system under control, balancing the state budget and cutting spending, and reforming the state's education system, he said.
"Every one of those accomplishments has been the result of compromise of both parties," Christie said, explaining that New Jersey has "set an example for the rest of America" for how both parties should work together to solve big problems.
Christie compared New Jersey's problems to a dinner in which near the end, his predecessors as governor vacated the table and went to the bathroom, leaving him to pay the bill.
"Everyone can yell and scream about how we got here, and there is plenty of blame to go around," he said.
Asked if, after 17 months in office, he would accept some responsibility for the problems he is trying to fix, Christie responded that "I inherited that, I take responsibility for it because it's on my watch." However, Christie noted that over the past 17 years, the state has only made any kind of payment to the pension system a total of two times.
"Every governor who has come before me, and now me, bears a portion of that responsibility," he said.
After $820 million in K-12 education cuts, Christie said he "still was unable to make any kind of pension payment." Therefore, to avoid further cuts, the pension reform bill "was the most responsible choice to make," he said.
In order to make New Jersey more affordable for "our children and grandchildren," Christie said attitudes of "It's okay to cut spending but don't cut mine" must be shunned, in exchange for the willingness to make "tough choices" like pension reform.
The crowd was mostly civil by town hall standards, save for one group of six supporters of perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche in the bleachers who were escorted out by police after singing and interrupting Christie. The governor called their display "free entertainment."
"Well, for those of you who are standing, there are some seats now available," he said after they were escorted out.
Before attendees asked questions, Christie warned that "You give it, you're getting it back."
"You set the tone, I will respond and comment," he said.
Yoel Weinfeld of New Milford asked the governor if he supports seceding from the union, given his attitude about Washington's epidemic. Christie said "We have to demand more from the people we elect, and we have to set a better example at every level."
"Inaction is not an alternative. The status quo is not an alternative," he said.
Lisa Yourman, a former Fair Lawn Board of Education member and a local small business owner, spoke of the burden of absorbing health insurance costs, prompting Christie to speak of the need to "keep in mind the context within which we are operating" when it comes to health benefits reform. People like Yourman, in addition to hefty benefits costs, pay income taxes and property taxes to support public employee salaries, he said. About 75 percent of the property tax burden comes from employee pensions, benefits and salaries, Christie explained.
"You have to control those expenses," he said. "I'm here to tell you there's no magic wand, and you can't have everything."
Alan Clements, a Fair Lawn High School teacher, said "I'm obviously concerned about changes that [Christie is] making midstream."
"You work for 20 years with expectations of retiring and then all of the sudden eveything's changed on you. It doesn't seem fair," Clements said. Christie's approach seems "more like a dictatorship than a democracy," he said.
"Many teachers voted for him, because of his stance on educaiton, and now I think they regret it. I know they regret it," Clements said.
Richard Vecchiarello, a 5th grade teacher Forrest Elementary in Fair Lawn, said in reaction to the bill that "it was the state that bankrupted the [pension and benefits] system by failing to pay into it," and now New Jersey is "asking them and them alone, public workers, to make up all the shortfall."
Barbara Koziol, a realtor from Elmwood Park, said she understood the concerns of public employees, but that she thinks Christie is "trying to address the concerns." Of the state's financial troubles, Koziol said "you can't sweep it under the carpet."
"I think he's trying his best with what has faced him," Koziol said of Christie.
Howard Mark of Fair Lawn said "I wrote to [Christie] last year about education, and he responded," proudly displaying the letter he received back from Christie's office.