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

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Five Years of Jersey Jazzman! Wednesday Throwback: How the NJ Press Failed Us on Christie & Pensions

One of the most important functions of bloggers is to keep the mainstream press on their toes. Unfortunately, while there are good reporters working the education beat, both in New Jersey and around the nation, too often the narrative about education policy features "experts" who have no idea what they are talking about.

I've been particularly frustrated over the years with the pundits, opinion makers, and news reporters who have given Chris Christie a free ride (and, for their efforts, managed to procure literal free rides for themselves). One of the most egregious examples -- and one that is particularly relevant today -- is how the press let Christie get away with claiming he "saved" New Jersey's public employee pensions.

Of course, he did no such thing. Some of us pointed this out in real time; however, during the last election, when it mattered, it was clear that the press had no interest whatsoever in holding Christie accountable on this critical issue.

This post from May of 2014 recalls the New Jersey news media's utter failure to serve the public by simply demanding to know how Chris Christie was going to pay for his pension plans. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, you have got to start doing better.


If you are at all shocked by this, you just haven't been paying attention:
In a stunning reversal, Gov. Chris Christie today announced plans to grab, over two years, $2.43 billion meant for public workers' pensions to balance New Jersey's ailing state budget. 
The plan threatens to derail one of Christie's signature accomplishments in Trenton — a series of reforms to replenish New Jersey's strained pension fund over the long term — but it would solve an immediate crisis for the governor, who has to find $2 billion somewhere to cover budget shortfalls for the current and incoming fiscal years. 
At a Statehouse news conference today, the Republican governor said his plan is to take $2.43 billion budgeted for the pension fund during this fiscal year and the next one. He ruled out alternatives such as raising the state income tax or cutting funds for schools and Medicaid. 
A payment to the pension fund scheduled to be made before June 30 will be reduced — from $1.6 billion to $696 million — via executive order, Christie said. 
To all my fellow public employees who voted for Chris Christie: I hope you're happy. This clown broke an explicit promise to you, and now he wants to take money out of your pocket and put your pension at risk. But, hey, he was such a straight shooter back in 2013, dontchaknow! And you just loved his no-nonsense style! Plus, he was with you on marriage equity/guns/abortion/insert-your-favorite-conservative-social-wedge-issue-here...

Honest people can debate any of those social issues. But I've never understood how a public employee could think any of them are more important than being able to take care of yourself and your family.

Of course, back in 2011, when Christie - abetted by his Democratic allies in the legislature -- forced us to pay more into our pensions on the promise the state would start meeting its obligations, he told us that he was "fixing these systems in order to save them." Plenty of suckers appeared to believe this; only snarky teacher-bloggers, it seemed, bothered to point out that Christie had never put forth a plan to raise the revenue his legislation requiredOver and over, the warning signs were there: without additional revenue, the payments required by Christie's law -- the one he constantly touted across the country -- would not be made.

Flash forward to 2013 and the gubernatorial race: Christie still had not told us how he was going to come up with in excess of $5 billion by 2018. He refused to raise taxes on corporations or the wealthy, both of whom had making out like bandits under New Jersey's regressive tax regime:

This was Christie's signature legislation; his shining, bipartisan moment... but he still hadn't let us in on the plan. You would think someone -- anyone -- would ask him about this.

No one did.

Don't believe me? Here are the two debates from 2013 between Christie and his challenger, Barbara Buono. Number one:

And number two:

There were lots of serious questions about serious issues asked in the debates: marriage equity, minimum wage, gun control, property taxes, etc. There were also plenty of questions about issues that I think are far less important: Christie's political ambitions, the Christiecrats who endorsed the incumbent over Buono, Wawa vs. 7-11 (seriously), etc.

But pension underfunding cuts right to the heart of the fiscal health of New Jersey. If anyone cared one whit about whether New Jersey would weather its budget crisis, they had to be concerned about the pensions. Why didn't anyone bother to ask about the pension payments?

To be fair: Barbara Buono, who I like and respect, never bothered to ask Christie about this either. I suppose she avoided the question because she figured she'd have to admit that she would have to raise taxes to make the payments. From my perspective, she would have been better off doing just that... but that is, admittedly, Monday morning quarterbacking.

In any case, the press didn't need for Buono to bring up pensions; they could have addressed the issue themselves. Unfortunately, the editorial boards of the state's newspapers utterly failed in their obligation to get an answer from Christie on this most basic of questions.

For example: when Tom Moran, chief of the Star-Ledger's editorial board, famously published his mea culpa for the paper's endorsement of Christie, he couldn't bring himself to address the problem of the pension payments:
But there is more to it. Christie has made good progress on education with a focus on struggling cities, especially Newark and Camden. His pension and health reforms helped contain public costs that were spiraling out of control. [emphasis mine]
Dear lord, what an obtuse statement. There is no cost containment without the state making its payments -- and Christie never told us how he would make them. The S-L's original endorsement worried that Christie hadn't come up with the funds to pay for open space purchase and transit projects. But any worry about the pension payments? Nope: the pension bill was "important." Unfounded, but "important."

Let's be fair: the Ledger wasn't alone. The Philadelphia Inquirer said Christie put "pension funding on a better track." The Asbury Park Press editorial board said: "Public employee pension and health benefits have been reined in, with the largest impact on taxpayers still to be felt.The Bergen Record editorial board didn't even mention pension payments in their endorsement.

The Atlantic City Pressin their endorsement of Christie, proclaimed: "Whether those reforms succeed in shoring up the pension system will depend on the huge payments they require in future budgets, but this legislation, pushed strenuously by Christie, is a step in the right direction." But how could there be a "step" without a payment plan? Did it occur to the paper's editorial board to ask what the plan was?


Pension payments are the central fiscal issue in New Jersey, but not one editorial board in the state bothered to address it in the last gubernatorial election.

And so now here we are: Chris Christie has reneged on his promises, the state's bond rating is now in free fall, and we are no closer to pension"reform" than we were four years ago.

I want to be clear: there are some very good reporters in the state doing some very good work. But on pension payments, the punditocracy of New Jersey utterly failed their readers and viewers. What happens next is as much on their heads as anyone else's.

NJ's Editorial Boards take a stand on pension payments...

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