NJEA Targeting Sweeney Should Signal the End of Taxpayer Subsidies For the Teacher’s Union 

Carl Golden, senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, talks about how legislators made a mistake by tying legalization of recreational marijuana to medical marijuana reform and how decriminalizing possession and expunging past convictions can help make things right.

The big news in this fall’s legislative elections is that the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is spending millions to unseat Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney.  Last year, Sweeney stood up to the union by blocking an NJEA-backed constitutional amendment on pension funding  that would have broken the state budget.  Now the NJEA wants revenge and is backing Sweeney’s Republican challenger Fran Greiner.   

By targeting Sweeney, the NJEA is sending  a message to politicians across the state: ” If you mess with the NJEA, we can and will spend millions to defeat you.” 

That threat may be bad for lawmakers, but it’s worse for taxpayers  

With a $230 billion deficit in  the state’s pension and health benefits funds staring the legislature in the face, comprehensive pension and benefits reform must be enacted soon or the state faces massive tax increases, drastic spending cut, or ultimately — insolvency. Instead of attracting companies like Amazon, the state will be losing employers. 

Legislators know the financial reality the state faces, but few are willing to act on reform because they fear the wrath of the NJEA that is now being visited upon Sweeney.  The   NJEA is the major roadblock to pension reform and has been for decades – putting its vast resources to work to increase taxes and pensions whenever and wherever it can – and targeting fiscally responsible politicians.     

Where does the union that represents public school teachers get millions of dollars to spend on politics?  Ironically, from the taxpayers.  

Over decades, the NJEA – with the help   of the very  lawmakers it intimidates —  has rigged the political system to funnel hundreds of millions of property tax dollars directly into its coffers, making it the most powerful political force in the state.  Few  taxpayers are aware that their property taxes are funding a powerful special interest that works diligently to raise taxes.    

Decades ago the NJEA successfully lobbied the legislature to pass two key laws that ensured its domination of state politics.  The first is “agency fees,” which effectively forces teachers to join the NJEA .  Under the law, if a teacher joins the union, she must pay full membership dues; but if a teacher chooses not to join the union, she still must pay up to 85 percent of dues in “agency fees.”  Unsurprisingly, over 99 percent of teachers are union members.    

The second is the automatic withholding of union dues from teachers’ paychecks by local school districts , which facilitates the NJEA’s dues collection on the taxpayers’ dime. The agency fees and dues withholding constitutes an enormous taxpayer subsidy to the NJEA.  Typically, private sector organizations  must spend significant amounts of their budgets and time to recruit members and collect their dues.  Not the NJEA: it is guaranteed nearly 100 percent membership and  100 percent of its dues money —  saving the union millions annually in operating expenses.    

This rigged system has served the NJEA well.  The NJEA siphoned off $121 million in property-tax-funded dues in 2016 and a total of $1.85 billion since 1994.  Most of that money is spent on politics. 

The NJEA is by far the biggest reported political spender in the state. My research indicates that from 1995-2015, the NJEA spent $787 million taxpayer dollars on political action. From 2013-15, the NJEA spent an astounding $56 million per year influencing politics. No wonder 90 percent of NJEA-endorsed candidates routinely win.    

Back to Sen. Sweeney.  The NJEA’s attack on Sweeney is nothing new.  In 1979, Democratic Assembly Education Committee chairman Daniel Newman crossed the NJEA by fighting against increased education spending.  The NJEA targeted Newman and defeated his re-election bid.  The NJEA’s message of intimidation did not go unnoticed, as Newman observed: “Legislators are scared of the teachers’ groups as a result of my experience.”    

Foreshadowing the NJEA’s endorsement of Sweeney’s Republican  rival, the NJEA in 1991  took its revenge against  Gov. James Florio and the Democratic legislature which passed laws that bucked the NJEA’s agenda. In response,  The NJEA endorsed 46 legislative Republican candidates and three Democrats  and helped flip the legislature from a Democrat majority to a Republican super-majority.  Gov. Florio recalled that one of the “extraordinarily dangerous” lessons he learned from his experience was: “Don’t mess with the teachers.”   

In 2005, Acting Gov. Richard Codey created a Benefits Review Task Force to look into public employee pensions and benefits and to recommend changes to control costs . The NJEA launched massive protests and blocked the legislative proposals.  The following year the NJEA mobilized thousands of its members  to thwart the recommendations of the Special Session of the legislature to deal with pension issues.    

When Gov. Christie tried to implement pension reform, the NJEA again reared up and thwarted the governor’s attempts and vilified Christie ever since.

 Today Sweeney is the politician with the target on his back,  but the message to New Jersey politicians is the same: “If you don’t do what we want you to do, we will destroy you.”    

Over the years, the NJEA – through exploitation of this rigged system – has taken a tremendous toll on state  taxpayers.  With hundreds of millions of tax dollars at its disposal, the NJEA has used its enormous political clout to increase state spending and debt, raise taxes and support policies that benefit its own interests at a big cost to taxpayers.  

Predictably, New Jersey now has the highest taxes in the country, the worst funded  public pension system, the worst business climate and is losing more of its citizens than almost any other state. 

Why does New Jersey put up with this? Why do we allow a special interest like the NJEA to siphon off tax dollars and dominate the political system?  It’s time to cut off the union’s tax dollars and end the taxpayer subsidies by terminating the agency fees and forcing the union to use its resources to recruit members and collect its own dues.  

As long as the NJEA is allowed to use taxpayer money to intimidate and defeat legislators there will be no meaningful pension reform in New Jersey. And with no pension reform  the state faces a dismal future. 

The fallout from the Sweeney race can go one of two ways;  either lawmakers will be cowed into caving into the unions wishes, or legislators will exact revenge and cut off the flow of taxpayer money to the NJEA.  Let’s see who steps up for the taxpayers and who sides with the union.    

Mike Lilley is  graduate of Princeton University and a former U.S. Marine Captain, who over the last six years  devoted his time to improving education in New Jersey and working with the American Enterprise Institute to study the impact of the NJEA on New Jersey politics and taxes.   


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8 responses to “NJEA Targeting Sweeney Should Signal the End of Taxpayer Subsidies For the Teacher’s Union ”

  1. I always smile when articles such as this are written. Mr. Lilley is not alone. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of articles like this that spit out the same figures, numbers, rhetoric, and spin. I smile because every single one of them always leaves out the most important part: The legislature simply stopped paying its share of the contribution to the pension system, and as a direct result, the fund is nearing insolvency. Mr. Lilley writes about how the NJEA gets a “benefit” in having the dues collected by the districts. Well, what about the “benefit” that the legislature has and uses to its advantage? The “benefit” to simply choose not to pay contributions if they don’t want to, even though they are required to. The public employees were not afforded the same “benefit”. They have to pay no matter what. They cant choose to simply stop paying.I like your article Mr. Lilley, I just wish it was more transparent.

  2. This article is a joke from start to finish. “John” made a few solid points. But Mr Lilly, which the inflamed and misleading headline must spend entirey too much time concocting and “explanation” of how it is “taxpayer dollars” (it isn’t), and conveniently omits the facts like the municipalities (and/or State) simply choosing not to fund their *agreed upon* part of the pension, then how the State, rather than paying what they stole, lays blame on the teachers, and wants to “reform” the pension by simply taking away the State’s obligations. That is not “reform” that is theft.

    If you want real reform, you start with a new contact that cuts a line in the sand, so that NEW employees come in at the newly agreed upon pension and you work from this point forward. People have accepted wages based on an agreed upon contract, you can’t just go back later and say, “we changed our minds”

    Besides the pension, Sweeney has teamed up with Christie on things that hurt teachers (and the people of NJ in general), such as all the dollars wasted on PARCC. So, yes, it actually makes sense, if a union that represents how many people in NJ? Has the power of that many people behind they and lobbies against someone that is outright negative and harmful to them?

    The only thing that I actually find surprising is that they didn’t get a solid Democratic candidate to challenge him in the primary rather than supporting a candidate in a part that is historically anti-union.

  3. Next June the U.S. Supreme Court will rule against Agency fees collection and the NJEA will begin to lose millions of dollars when people do not sign up.

    In order to stay solvent new State laws will have to be passed to keep the money flowing.

    Guess who has to post those Bills????

    Also there will be a push to ” split” the pension funds and give control of the funds to the Unions. Guess whose pension fund is in the most trouble?? That’s right !!! The teachers fund is the lowest because the teachers for years paid nothing into it.

    Guess who will have to include increased pension funding for the teachers???

    The NJEA might be feeling its oats today but if they do not defeat Sweeney they are in a lot of trouble unless THEY make nice.

    • People who don’t want to pay their dues, shouldn’t get any salary increases negotiated by the union. No freeloading.

      As for Sweeney not posting it, he’d be punishing the AFT, who endorsed him. Not to mention the CWA.

      • The new Supreme Court decision will allow ” freeloading” .

        Sweeney would never not post a Bill that could help his friends or that would be good for working men and women.

        The key is ” how” the Bill is structured…..

        ..and by the way the CWA has stayed neutral in the race . They would never back a ” trumpster”.

        • Sure. But staying neutral is not the same thing as opposing.
          If he refused to post the bill, I could see him being deposed.

  4. What makes the NJEA leadership smarter than the CWA,FOP,PBA,AFSCME,IFPTE,SEIU,ALL the Building Trades unions, UNITE 54 , and EVERY other major Union and Worker Association ?

    Trick question ! …. they are NOT smarter!

    Not a single other Union or Association has backed Sweeney’s opponent in LD 3. Not one! Yet the NJEA leadership claims that they ,and they alone, have a monopoly on knowing what is best for the workers. The NJEA leadership continues to spend millions ,on what is now clearly seen as a vendetta campaign,not a policy campaign.

    A good teacher would explain to a student that if everyone has one answer and you alone have another, there is a very good chance that you are wrong. Maybe it is time for some good teachers to explain this logic to the NJEA leadership.

    The excellent Teachers who live and work in New Jersey will be giving their leadership a big ” F” on November 7th for wasting all of their hard-earned money!

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