TRENTON, NJ A group of unions representing New Jersey state troopers are the first to sue Gov. Chris Christie to force him to make a larger payment to the state’s public-worker pension system in his latest state budget proposal.
Christie’s proposed budget, which covers the fiscal year that begins in July, includes a $1.3 billion pension payment that is nearly two times the size of this year’s contribution, though still far below what he agreed to under a 2011 pension overhaul he signed into law.
The State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, the State Troopers Non-Commissioned Officers Association, and the State Troopers Superior Officers Association filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court in Trenton this week saying Christie is breaking that 2011 law by not making the full payment.
“The foregoing situation constitutes a real, present, and imminent danger that the defendants are about to violate,” the lawsuit says. “Any failure to fund the pension trust fund has a ripple effect into the future.”
A dozen other public-worker unions said earlier this week they plan to file similar lawsuits.
As part of his budget address last month, the Republican governor also proposed making further reforms to the pension system, based on recommendations from a special commission he appointed to solve the problem. The system is one of the most underfunded in the nation, and Christie said it threatens to swallow large portions of future state budgets if more changes aren’t made.
Christie would have to find an additional $1.7 billion in his $33.8 billion proposed budget to pay for the full $3 billion pension payment that the unions are demanding. Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said the $1.3 billion set aside for pensions is already the largest payment ever made into the system.
Roberts added today that making a full pension payment this budget cycle would require a 10 percent sales tax or 29 percent increase in New Jersey’s income tax.
“It’s disappointing that the answer of some public unions to the fundamental and much-needed reforms proposed by an independent panel of experts and the governor is yet another lawsuit that ignores the basic math and reality of the situation we face, and that does nothing to solve the problem,” Roberts said in a statement. “The governor is focused on working towards a real solution with those unions and legislators who are willing to come to the table so that we can achieve lasting reform, rather than push this problem off to tomorrow.”
The pension crisis is arguably the biggest issue in Trenton, and one that threatens to complicate Christie’s possible campaign for the 2016 Republican nomination for president.
A state Superior Court judge ruled last month that Christie broke the 2011 law when he slashed $1.5 billion from the pension payment in the current state budget. Judge Mary Jacobson also ordered that he and the state Legislature work together to make up the money, though the governor is expected to appeal.
The unions argued in that case that they were contractually guaranteed to a full payment under the 2011 law. Christie had worked with Democratic lawmakers on the overhaul, which forced workers to pay more into the pension system, suspended cost-of-living increases, and raised the retirement age, while the state agreed to gradually increase its contributions over seven years until reaching the full funding level set by actuaries. Christie earned national attention because of the law, which he championed as a bipartisan achievement.
New Jersey’s governors have short-changed the pension system for two decades in an effort to balance state budgets. That has left an $83 billion unfunded pension liability.
Saying he didn’t have a choice, Christie cut a combined $2.4 billion in pension payments from the 2014 and 2015 budgets after his office’s revenue projections fell far short. He said he hired the special commission to suggest new reforms because the 2011 overhaul didn’t go far enough.
Union members and Democratic lawmakers have said they are unlikely to go along with Christie’s new plan until he makes the full payments.