Mulshine is a self-styled libertarian curmudgeon who sees himself as a wonk, which means he likes to think he's arrived at his conclusions through careful and well-informed analysis, rather than cherry-picking facts and sophistry. In his latest column, he convinces himself he has such a fine grasp of the state's fiscal situation that those who insist on New Jersey making its pension payments are living in a fantasy world:
I didn't get a chance to ask [Assembly Speaker Vince] Prieto where he'd find room in the budget to make those payments because he's not returning calls from the press. So I did the next best thing. I called the NJEA.
The New Jersey Education Association put out a press release the other day in which president Wendell Steinhauer said the state's largest teachers union is rejecting Christie's response to the Prieto plan. Christie called for the unions to negotiate pension and health benefit reductions to save the pensions.
"We will continue to work with Speaker Prieto, Senate President Sweeney and any other responsible legislator to find an achievable, sustainable pension solution that ensures the state will meet its full pension obligations to our members and to all public employees," the statement read.
That leaves unanswered the question of how the state could come up with the cash to make those payments. I put that question to NJEA communications director Steve Wollmer.
"It's a daunting task, I think everyone admits that," said Wollmer. "Bad decisions have been made for 20 years by everyone in the system."
I asked Wollmer what level of new taxes or spending cuts could make this pig fly, or at least put lipstick on it.
"Everyone talks about the millionaires' tax," he said. "That's $700 million a year."
Sounds good, but that's just a fraction of the $4.3 billion annual payment recommended by actuaries.
Other than that, Wollmer couldn't come up with any suggestions for big-ticket revenue-raisers. Instead he reiterated the line the union's been pushing to avoid that question.
When I read that, I was surprised. Because I know Steve Wollmer; we see each other several times a year, at the NJEA convention and other union events. He reads this blog regularly, and he knows that I and many others have suggested many other streams of revenue and cost-cutting measures that could significantly help in pulling together the money needed for the state to make its payments. Why didn't he mention them?"The teachers didn't create this problem and have been paying into the fund," he said. [emphasis mine]
It turns out he did. As Ani McHugh points out, Mulshine, according to Wollmer, completely misrepresented Wollmer's answer:
It's crap reporting. The kind of crap reporting the Star-Ledger op-ed page engages in regularly.
To be clear, I've been quoted several times by the S-L newsroom staff, and they have always been fair and accurate: former reporters Peggy McGlone and Jessica Calefati, and current reporter Adam Clark, are all professional journalists who write good stories about education. No, my problem has always been with the op-ed page, where crap like Mulshine's appears to be the standard.
Now, we could argue that this was a case of he-said/he-said. Except when readers started linking to Ani's blog under Mulshine's original post and began questioning his reporting, Mulshine all but admitted he had skipped over much of Wollmer's answer:
I'd like to point out I'm in my 50s, but I don't have a pool in Florida (and I'd rather have a single malt on the rocks). This stupidity about greedy teachers leeching off the system is, of course, completely contradicted by the actual facts: teachers are not overpaid, even when taking into account benefits.
But Mulshine is entitled to his opinions, idiotic as they may be. He is also free to argue against Wollmer's suggestions for raising revenue.* What Paul Mulshine is not free to do is misrepresent an answer to his question and then, when caught, say the answer was "silly" anyway.
This one is really simple: Paul Mulshine owes his readers a correction. And the Star-Ledger needs to take a hard look at how the low standards of its op-ed page are unworthy of the largest newspaper in New Jersey.
Low standards? Where?
ADDING: John Reitmeyer, a real journalist, points out the obvious:
At stake in the ongoing debate are the retirements of an estimated 770,000 current and retired public workers who are relying on the $80 billion pension system to be there when their careers end. And for taxpayers, there are also enormous consequences because the court ruling reaffirmed that employees still have a right to receive their pensions, meaning the annual payouts will have to come out of the state budget if the pension system ultimately goes broke. [emphasis mine]The folks like Mulshine, who continually tell us the state can't make its payments because it has no money, never seem to want to follow things through to their conclusion. Do they really think an entire state can go into default? That the state's own courts, let alone the federal courts, will allow that to happen? That the courts won't force the state to find the revenues later? That there won't be hell to pay even if the state constitution is rewritten to allow default?
This state must raise taxes. It must stop the corporate tax giveaways. It must get its pension costs under control. Wollmer and the NJEA understand this; Mulshine is the one who is "silly."
For myself: I'm all for getting health care costs under control and using the savings to help fund pension payments -- after the state reinstates the millionaire's tax, cuts corporate giveaways, reforms tax expenditures, and renegotiates its pension costs, which are outrageous.
Do that, and then we'll talk about health care. But not before.
*If we raise the gas tax, that may well free up other revenues going to fund transportation, like the general sales tax. Granted, changing this might take a constitutional amendment, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. Seems to me that these are the sort of discussions self-styled wonks like Mulshine should be having in their columns, rather than misrepresenting the people they interview.