Editorial: Pension hole is a crater

The Record
March 1, 2010

THE BATTLE of the pensions continues. Everyone is losing.

Last week, the state Treasury Department issued a new analysis on the state’s beleaguered pension fund. Or perhaps, it would be better named “the pension underfund.” It is now underfunded by nearly $46 billion.

That represents a 30 percent increase in a single year; the fiscal chasm was only $34.3 billion last year. How the state landed in such a mess is well documented. Governors and
Legislatures of both parties stopped paying into the fund in order to continue freewheeling spending. Supporters of former Gov. Christie Whitman may claim that the pension fund was overfunded when she stopped payments. But the “tech” bubble on Wall Street burst and the pension fund’s value dropped. Rather than begin making payments, the state continued to ignore warning signs. And now, as they say in hospitals, we have a Code Blue.

During his tenure, Governor Corzine began putting money back in. But the recession
limited even those half-measures. The Legislature and Governor Christie are united in wanting to enact serious pension reform. The reforms proposed and passed so far in the Senate, but still not in the Assembly, are major steps toward achieving those goals.

Today, the Senate is scheduled to discuss a proposed constitutional amendment to fully
fund the system within seven years, and require the state to pay its full share each year after that. If approved by the Legislature, the plan could go before voters in November.

Unless the system is reformed and the fund protected, it will collapse. While we were not surprised by initial reactions from state employee unions to the latest grim news, we were hoping for a change in tone. In a release issued Thursday, the Communications Workers of America, District One, chastised past administrations for not funding the pension fund. It also took exception to the pension funding plan proposed in the Senate bill.

The CWA’s problem with the bill is that it gives the state eight years to catch up and make full annual payments into the fund. It is a specious argument. The state is bleeding money from every pore. The same is true for municipalities struggling to close budget gaps. The Senate has offered a workable plan to get the fund back on its feet. It took years to dig this hole, and it will take years to fill it.

Finally we are seeing leadership in the Senate and from the governor to tackle this issue honestly. Changes in the pension system – for example, requiring all state employees to contribute 1.5 percent of their salary toward health care costs – will not fill the current hole. But it stops the digging.

We believe most New Jerseyans, whether they work in the public or private sector, understand that the current system is not sustainable.

The pension fund’s value may increase as the economy improves. Part of the loss of its value is a result of what happened on Wall Street. But it is what happened on State Street in Trenton that has done the most harm.

The choice is simple: Reform the pension system and ultimately fully fund it to ensure that state employees have some security in retirement, or block progressive reforms and watch the entire system collapse.

The battle of the pensions only will be won when public workers and the state recognize they are on the same side.