NJ Politicians and the Priority of Politics

There is nothing new about New Jersey politicians playing around with the pension system to help out fellow politicians.
 
I am reminded of an incident more than 25 years ago in Morris County when the then-freeholder board replaced a key county administrator. But the man who was technically fired didn’t go anywhere – at least immediately. He was given a temporary position in the county counsel’s office that allowed him to stay on the county payroll long enough to maximize his pension benefits. Essentially, this was a created job to help out a long-time employee, never mind that he was dismissed apparently for not doing his job well.
That was a long time ago, but these games continue unabated. State news these days is filled with reports lawmakers in Trenton are pushing a bill to improve the pension status of a mere handful of politicians, most notably Dana Redd, the outgoing mayor of Camden.
 
Not so long ago, lawmakers rushed through a judicial appointment with great speed so that the nominee would get the job before he turned 60. That would allow him potentially to get credit for 10 full years in the judicial pension system if he remained on the bench until age 70.
 
On one hand, such manipulation of the rules simply can be seen as the type of things politicians have been doing for years, not only in New Jersey, but across the country.
 
But it’s not that simple.
 
The New Jersey pension system, you see, is in crisis.
 
How do we know?
 
Well, politicians on all levels tell us.
 
Governor Christie began talking about massive problems in the pension system as soon as he took office eight years ago. And that prompted him – with help from Democratic leaders in the Legislature – to pass a pension reform bill in 2011. That bill increased pension contributions for virtually all public employees in the state. But still, the system is said to be in trouble and structural reform, we are told, is needed.
This is not an issue that grabs the average voter. For one thing, it involves non-sexy things like “actuary tables” and “unfunded liabilities.”
 
For another thing, many average voters are indifferent or even hostile to the problem. That’s because many people, rightly or wrongly, think public employees make too much money, get too many paid holidays and receive too generous pensions in the first place. Many private corporations, in fact, did away with employee pensions in favor of a 401(k) system years ago.
 
Of course, no matter the public perception, state officials have to take pension system woes seriously and try to fix them. The lip service paid to this problem is commendable. But then we come to the legislation now being kicked around.
 
Here’s what happened.
 
In 2007, the state banned newly elected officials from enrolling in the state pension system. Instead, they could go into a 401(k)-style system. Current elected officials could remain in the pension system as long as they stayed in office.
 
Redd, who was then a state senator, left the Senate and was elected mayor of Camden in 2010.  Under the 2007 law, she was bumped from the pension system.
 
The legislation now under consideration would allow Redd to return to the pension system she was forced to leave when she was elected mayor. A small number of officials in similar positions also would benefit.
 
This brings up an obvious question.
 
If the pension system is truly in trouble, why are lawmakers even considering such ploys to help out some of their own?
 
Redd clearly knew, or should have known, what would happen to her pension when she ran for mayor.
 
The fact that her state pension has been frozen really amounts to, “too bad,” or if you wish to be a bit more folksy, “that’s how the cookie crumbles.”
 
Supporters of the pending bill point out that it involves a very small amount of money.
 
Of course it does. But let’s be real, that’s not the point.
 
The point is that at a time when the pension system is allegedly in crisis, politicians are still trying to game the system.
 
Incoming Governor Phil Murphy has not said much about this scheme publicly. That’s a shame. What he should say is something like, “This is ridiculous and I do not support it.”
 
Christie will be gone in a few weeks and Murphy and the Democrats will be in full control of state government.
 
Political parties may not matter much on this issue. You can probably expect to hear continued talk about fixing or reforming the pension system.
 
The public should not believe it.
 
The only way voters will know state leaders are serious about reforming the pension system is when they stop using the system to help their friends and colleagues.
 
Don’t hold your breath.
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