Now that the 2016 budget debate is over, we must get back to the most pressing state issue of our time. The suggestion of some in the public worker sector that those of us who voted against the budget are abandoning our commitment to ensuring their pensions is completely false. Any responsible elected official knows it is imperative that we meet our commitments in a way that protects our pubic workers and the N.J. economy at the same time.
The reason we couldn't make a payment larger than the $1.3 billion included in Gov. Chris Christie's budget has nothing to do with a lack of will or integrity. It's about devoting as much money as possible without inflicting massive tax increases on an economy just showing signs of real growth.
Without economic growth, there will be no chance we will be able to meet our commitments to the system in the years to come – so ensuring growth is as important to public workers as anyone else. We don't simply have a $1.8 billion deficit this year. We have a $6 to $7 billion hole over the next few years. Taxing the life out of our economy this year, with no plan going forward – and leaving us in a $2 billion hole next year, as the Democrat's proposed budget would – is bad policy for all New Jerseyans.
But it is true as well that we can't foster growth to the exclusion of our obligation to our dedicated public workers. Our teachers and other public workers are devoted professionals, and generalizations to the contrary are without merit.
It is also true that the $1.3 billion – while one of the largest contributions ever – doesn't meet the level we promised in the 2011 reforms. No one is happy about that, but the recovery we have experienced nationally hasn't met the reasonable expectations we had relied on here in New Jersey. But rather than point fingers, let's understand that the growth projections came from unbiased actuaries that relied on data from previous recoveries over 75 years. Gov. Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) relied on those projections in good faith. There is no nefarious plot here: You cannot blame Christie administration policies for the low growth in N.J. The governor has consistently argued for more pro-growth policies.
But now, all that came before is irrelevant. We must move on – together – and solve our overarching budget issues, which essentially encompass pension funding. We can't afford to miss this opportunity, where our challenges are so acute and the solutions so close at hand at the same time.
They exist within the data provided by the Pension And Health Benefits Commission Report, which is an extraordinary, comprehensive document. The commission comprises a bipartisan group of the dedicated public servants, including Tom Byrne, the former Democratic State Chairman and an expert on government finance. His presence at the head of the table with commission coordinator Tom Healey is proof the governor did not stack the commission. Among their proposals are the enshrinement of a payment schedule in the state Constitution – which should allay the lingering trust issue – and they will not cut accrued pensions. Their health plan suggestion is to reduce "platinum" policies to something north of "gold," which is not an outrageous sacrifice for workers.
But given our growth projections and other positive signs, the reforms need not be draconian – if we act now. Anyone whose plan it is to wait out the next few years – anticipating a more malleable governor – should think twice. The challenges will remain, but the hole will be deeper and the remedies more painful.
Our children and grandchildren will talk about this moment in one of two ways – either how their parents came together to rise above politics and seized this opportunity to fix New Jersey, or how we abdicated our responsibility and blew the last chance to save the state economy. If necessary, I am willing to expend the last breath of my political career fighting for the former.