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.