I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, August 5, 2016

Steve Sweeney's Weak Case Against New Jersey Teachers & Police Unions

As usual, Tom Moran -- editorial page editor of the Star-Ledger -- leaves all logic behind if it means he can get in a good whack at New Jersey's teachers unions:
Did Senate President Steve Sweeney just commit political suicide?
Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is the highest-ranking Democrat in Trenton, and wants to be governor.
But he just called for a criminal investigation of the state's largest teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association, which is by far the richest and most powerful special interest group in the state.
"I'm not going to be bullied and I'm not going to be pushed around," Sweeney says. "Whatever it means to my future."
His charge is that leaders of the teachers' union, and the police union, may have crossed the line into bribery and extortion by explicitly linking campaign donations to a vote by the Legislature.
He may have a point. You can wink and nod about this stuff, but you can't promise money for a specific official action. [emphasis mine]
First of all, as I said before: Sweeney is claiming the unions threatened to withhold money if he didn't put a constitutional amendment on pension funding on the ballot. How can it possibly be a bribe if you don't give someone something? The NJEA hasn't promised money for a specific action; what they've said, quite rationally, is that they're not going to continue to support any politician who doesn't support the interests of their members.

Under current regulations and statutes, NJEA and its affiliated PAC (funded with voluntary contributions from NJEA members) can give any candidate or political organization any amount they wish as authorized by law -- same as with any individual or group. No one has accused the union of making illegal contributions; everything they've given is totally above board. But why would they ever give a donation to a candidate who isn't supporting them?

Even Moran seems to understand this; his problem, apparently, is that the NJEA actually said they won't support politicians who break their promises to members. Tom, you see, wants the illusion of a campaign finance system that doesn't influence politicians. If the NJEA just pulled their money for the upcoming election and didn't say why, that would be fine. But if they actually state they can't support a politician because he's not working in their interest...

Well, screw the First Amendment if offends Tom Moran's delicate sensibilities!

How could it possibly be illegal to tell politicians: "If you don't support us, we won't support you"? Isn't that essentially what every campaign donor does? For that matter: isn't it what every voter does? Isn't that what every candidate does when they make a promise to support some policy?

Folks, I'm not a lawyer, so if someone wants to correct me on this, go ahead. But Sweeney, in his letters to the US Attorney and the NJ Attorney General, invoked the Hobbs Act in his call to investigate the NJEA. However, according to these instructions from the federal Ninth Circuit court,  there's no basis for a charge because the NJEA hasn't actually conspired with anyone:
[The acceptance by a public official of a campaign contribution does not, in itself, constitute a violation of law even though the donor has business pending before the official. However, if a public official demands or accepts [money] [property] [some valuable right] in exchange for a specific requested exercise of official power, such a demand or acceptance does constitute a violation regardless of whether the payment is made in the form of a campaign contribution.]

If the defendant is not a public official, then this instruction should be modified to include a requirement that the government prove that the defendant either conspired with a public official or aided and abetted a public officialUnited States v. McFall, 558 F.3d 951, 960 (9th Cir.2009). A Hobbs Act conspiracy may exist even if some members of the conspiracy are not public officials and thus cannot complete the offense. Ocasio v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1423, 1429-32 (2016). The object of the conspiracy need not be to get property from a person outside the conspiracy; it is sufficient that the property comes from another member of the conspiracy. Id. at 1434-35. [emphasis mine]
Clearly there was no conspiring here. And again: if you don't give someone a campaign contribution, how are you aiding them?

What Sweeney and the Democrats really have a problem with is that state and local employees have been getting the shaft for years and have finally decided that they can't keep asking their families to continue to sacrifice just because they chose a career in public service. Like every other voter in this state, NJ public employees are only going to support candidates who support them.

Lets be very clear about this: over the past several years, public workers have been paying substantially more for their pensions and health care benefits and getting much, much less. Chapter 78 was passed in 2011 with the specific promise that, in exchange for these serious hits to our paychecks, we'd finally see the state meet its obligations.

That, of course, never happened -- because Chris Christie never had a plan to make the payments that Chapter 78 required.* At this juncture, NJ public employees have every reason to believe they are getting stiffed, and things will only get worse unless and until a constitutional amendment is passed that forces the state to meet its obligations.

One thing that drives me crazy -- Moran does it in his column -- is when pundits and politicians call the further erosion of our retirement and health care benefits "reasonable." That flies in the face of every substantive analysis of just how stingy this state's public employee benefits are.

The New Jersey Policy Perspective recently analyzed New Jersey pension benefits and found they were among the least generous in the nation. Our health benefits, according to Mark J. Magyar at NJ Spotlight, are also very stingy compared to other states and the private sector.

Now the cost of living adjustments on pension benefits have been taken away. At a 3 percent inflation rate, one-quarter of the value of a retiree's pension payment will disappear in 10 years. It won't be long before this state has many retired cops and firefighters and teachers who will not be able to stay in their homes.

But Tom Moran and Chris Christie -- and now, apparently, Steve Sweeney -- along with other elites think it's "reasonable" for us public servants to take even further benefit cuts with no guarantee of the state ever keeping its promises. It never dawns on these fine folks that maybe, before public employees have to give blood yet again, the state's wealthiest residents should start paying their fair share.

Why does Steve Sweeney think tax hikes on the wealthy are politically impossible, but further screwing public employees is not?

Sweeney has been trying mightily to link the transportation bill to the pension amendment. Yes, transportation is important. Yes, we still have a governor who has abandoned his responsibilities (today, rather than working with Sweeney to try to solve all this, he's hosting a sports radio call-in show -- no, I'm not kidding). No, we shouldn't blow a hole in the budget.

But Sweeney himself said the only way for the state to meet its pension obligations was to amend the constitution. This was his idea. He proposed it last December, knowing full well that the transportation trust fund was in serious trouble.

Now he's angry that public employees are holding him to his word -- so angry he's willing to publicly accuse the unions of criminal acts, even though his charges have no basis in the law. And, in a massive spasm of hypocrisy, he's willing to continue taking campaign money from the special interests who would benefit from putting money for road construction before pension payments:
Construction groups joining Sweeney at the news conference said they needed the state to solve the funding issue.

Since Christie ordered the road-project shutdown last month, "we have hundreds of firms that are affected. We have thousands of employees that are laid off," said Robert Briant, CEO of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey.
With workers needing to make money now to carry them through winter, "we need this resolution. We needed it yesterday," he said.
Now that's incredible. Because, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the Utility & Transportation Contractors Association has donated $15,700 to Steve Sweeney over the years. In fact, they've spread over $1.5 million around New Jersey over the last two decades. Somehow, it's perfectly fine that they give all that dough and their needs are prioritized by the Senate President...

But if the NJEA says they won't give money, that literally requires a federal investigation.

I'd like to see Moran and Sweeney explain this one to us stupid teachers.

Two angry guys, threatening legal actions instead of proposing real solutions.

* That didn't stop Moran from endorsing Christie anyway. Why? Because his opponent was endorsed by the NJEA.

Yes, this picture really did appear with the Star-Ledger op-ed page's obsequious profile of David Tepper. Look carefully and you'll see the boxing glove is embroidered with a label that says "NJEA." That's how much Moran loathes the teachers unions.

Think about that, NJ teachers, the next time you choose to pay for a copy of this newspaper.

ADDING: I'm leaving the tenure and charter schools and teacher evaluation stuff in Moran's column alone because I'm frankly tired of debating a guy who is either too ignorant or too intractable to actually listen to what I and others have told him time and time again about these topics. Moran has repeatedly demonstrated his unwillingness to respond to the arguments of well-informed experts, like me, on these matters. I have no desire to continue to engage him on issues where he is willingly obtuse.

ADDING MORE: This is hilarious. From the comments section of Moran's piece:

Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board

Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
Question: Is there a way to oppose the teacher union positions without being "anti-teacher"?... I had a lot of great teachers, and feel grateful as hell to them. I had a bunch of lousy teachers, too, so I guess it's like every profession, including journalism.

But still, don't we all have the right in good faith to oppose the teachers union on questions like tenure and charter schools and contracts that have silly work rules? And if we do, does that make us anti-teacher? I don't buy it.

Oh, you poor little lamb. You write this stupidity:
Especially when he's standing up the NJEA, which fights any education reform that might force its members to cut short their lunch breaks or demonstrate that their kids are actually learning something.
And then your delicate feelings are bruised when commenters who are teachers call you out on your crap? Give me a break.

This commenter puts it perfectly:

Fight for shorter lunch breaks?! My lunch break is 33 minutes. That inclues my bathroom break (because I can't just leave my classroom whenever I feel like it) and the time it takes to walk my kids to lunch and pick them up. There goes 5-10 minutes right there of my 33 minutes. Then there is always 1 parent email waiting for me that wasn't there in the morning and needs an answer about birthday cupcakes by 2:00 (because apparently parents forget their own kids birthday until the last minute?!). I end up having 10-15 minutes to eat. I NEVER can run out for even a coffee less than a mile away because I simply don't have time. How long was YOUR lunch today, Moran? How much shorter do you think my lunch should be? When do you think I can find time to use a bathroom otherwise, especially when my prep periods are now busy with scheduled meetings?
By the way, I AM the NJEA. I am a teacher and am the local union's K-4 building rep and district PR person. That conclusion sentence was idiotic. It was like saying you like linguine, but not pasta. Linguine IS pasta!!! Smh
Since you are blatantly against public education, just say it already. No one will be surprised, and you are not kidding anyone with this biased, amateur piece of fluff. Your writing isn't any Economist production. Have a reality check and sit down. Nj.com has to find a real journalist for this editorial section. So tired of Moran's unprofessionalism and ignorance.
Brava. Moran's anti-unionism is anti-teacher, especially when he thinks benefit cuts are "reasonable" after all the cuts we've already taken, and when his policy concerns extend to the length of lunch breaks.

You decided to go to war with NJEA, Tom. You should have thought about the consequences before you did.


Giuseppe said...

These public school teacher haters and union loathers are clueless beyond hope. Reduce lunch time!?! In other words, let's toughen up and just eliminate lunch. When I was teaching, lunch was 30 minutes. I had to bring a class of 38 kids (my first year) quietly and in good order to the lunch room at the assigned time. Get them through the lunch line, get my lunch, then go to the faculty room, use the lavatory and then I had about maybe 15-20 minutes for lunch. Then go back and pick the kids up in the cafeteria (all purpose room) at the 29 minute mark. The cafeteria aids were not amused if you were late picking up the kids and that was entirely understandable since they were also under a tight schedule. Gee, isn't it fun being a punching bag. But charter schools are so much better, always, always (sarcasm alert).

Giuseppe said...

I glitched......cafeteria aides, not aids. To err is humanoid.

StateAidGuy said...

Comparing pension benefits across states is very complex and there isn't a straightforward way to assess generosity.

By several measures, NJ's post-2011 pension system looks ungenerous, but even the author of the NJPP analysis admitted that pre-2011 NJ would be in the middle of the pack for pension generosity.

More importantly, most states don't pay teacher salaries that are as high as NJ, in nominal terms or even in terms of cost of living, so NJ pensions are calculated based on very high salaries.

If there is a state where teachers make $5k per year below the median, but teachers get 75% of their salaries in pensions and another state where teachers make $5k per year ABOVE the median and teachers get 55% of their salaries in pensions, who is more generous?

It's hard to say.

If you review these charts from EdBuild, you'll see that NJ (starting) teacher salaries are the 2nd highest, even adjusted for cost of living.

I can't find where EdBuild looks at average (as opposed to starting) salaries, but I have seen this before and I know that NJ is also very high.