Jersey Paper Soft On Pension Reform

Star Ledger

A major factor in New Jersey being the most corrupt state in the nation is that the state’s largest newspaper is in cahoots with the crooked politicians either by ignoring their numerous ethical lapses or commending their playacting at ‘reform’ that wind up not disturbing the status quo. 

So it is with the proposed pension reform where today’s editorial in the Star Ledger wholeheartedly supports pathetically weak changes that won’t avoid plan bankruptcy but will leave the favoured interests undisturbed, as have the other pension ‘reforms’ that preceded it.  Rarely has an editorial so consistently maintained a level of naivete that I will quote it in total with my comments.

With a deadline looming in only a few weeks, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) has offered a smart compromise that could rescue floundering efforts to reform the state’s pension and health systems. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is on board as well.

There are deadlines?

This is an important moment. If Gov. Chris Christie accepts this deal, the state will finally be on the road to fiscal health. And a powerful engine driving up property taxes will be shut down.

“Shut down”?  Considering that the increase in employee contributions that the unions are crying about will only bring in about $250 million more a year when benefit payouts are $8 billion?

Here’s where we stand: The governor and Sweeney have already agreed to a tough reform that would save huge sums of money by trimming benefits and requiring public employees to contribute more.

“Tough”?  “Save huge sums”?  The retirement age extension applies only to new hires, those with over 25 years are excepted from the higher employee contributions, the COLA elimination will be challenged in court, and the promise that the state will make their required contributions is as strong as the ethical backbone of a New Jersey politician.

The new terms would apply not just to state workers, but to the much larger army of teachers, cops and firefighters whose obscenely generous benefits are a key driver of property taxes.

“Obscenely generous benefits”?  Is this a slip-up that will have the Ledger’s remaining readers cancelling subscriptions?  However, if they truly believe these benefits are obscene why not take the next logical step and call for them to be cut (even for retirees)?

But the plan hit a wall in the Assembly last week. The main concern was over health care, not pensions. Most Democrats believe health benefits should be negotiated at the bargaining table, not set by law as pension benefits traditionally have been.  That is a legitimate concern. Collective bargaining is a key tool for working people in this country to get justice at their jobs. Taking away that right, at least regarding health benefits, is an extreme move.  Like Christie and Sweeney, we believe that extreme move is justified by extreme circumstances. While state workers have been reasonable, the local unions have mostly refused to budge and have, instead, used their political power to preserve benefits New Jersey simply can’t afford. That has created a crisis.

With the obvious left unsaid: that the unions are negotiating with politicians that they own.

Oliver’s compromise is simple: She would impose the reform on all public workers by law, but allow the provisions on health care to expire in three years with a sunset clause. That would send health care back to the bargaining table in 2014.  That’s a reasonable way to preserve collective bargaining rights over the long term. And it gives taxpayers a huge advantage, since the starting point for those talks would be the lower-cost benefits contained in the reform.

Motivating the unions more than ever to keep those bought politicians in office until 2014 when they can restore (or enhance) benefits.

Despite his sharp rhetoric, Christie has made reasonable compromises to get this far. He accepted Sweeney’s demands to soften the blow on the lowest-paid workers and to beef up the state’s contribution to the pension funds.

“Beef up the state’s contribution”?  The wording in this ‘reform’ was that the state would make their contribution (1/7th at least) and Chrisite couldn’t blow it off.  Considering that there is already a law in place to have that contribution made but the budget process allows that law to be ignored, the question has to be asked as to what will be enacted, beyond a law that is now on the books, that would get that contribution made.

To get across the finish line, he needs to make one more big one. If he does that, he soon may be signing the most important reform of his term in office.

This is what makes newspapers dangerous.  People reading this might actually believe it.  With talk of a “finish line” and the “most important reform” the natural conclusion is that these weak tweaks to the system will do the job and the participants getting those “obscenely generous benefits” won’t need to be disturbed.  The average reader might not notice that there is not one shred of justification (not one number even in the whole piece) for this panglossian view.  The members of the editorial board are merely parroting wishful press releases and they see no conflict of interest as long as the checks for the legal ads don’t come in the same envelope.

This post originally appeared at Burypensions Blog.

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