by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
In war and politics, if you pick your battlefield you win. The current pension fight in New Jersey is a classic example. Nearly everyone in the state sees it as a battle between a broken pension system and cash strapped citizens, but this is all just a setup.
Governor Chris Christie cut $1.5 billion in pension payments from the latest budget proposal while also cutting modest tax increases on the rich to pay for it. When the unions squealed, he offered the public a false choice between tax hikes on the middle class or cuts to popular and essential programs. His framing of the problem this way pits average citizens against civil servants and their unions. This is the battlefield of choice for national conservatives.
This fight could have been between government solvency and any other public obligation of the state, but it’s not. It’s against public employee unions because killing public sector unions and fix pension systems has been a conservative priority for decades. This is a grand plan playing out in many other states. Starving public pensions was always a choice, not a necessity. If all those missed pension payments had been made the system would be awash in cash today given the huge growth in the investment markets over the past twenty years.
But Gov. Christie almost blew this plan to destroy public pensions in New Jersey when he enacted pension reforms that might actually fix the system. His reform plan could still fix it if implemented, but not without seriously upsetting his potential conservative backers.
In order to keep his presidential hopes alive Governor Christie had no choice but to sabotaged his own reforms and further degrade the state pension system by not paying what he promised. A state judge has seen through his shallow plan and ordered him to restore the cuts, and he has appealed. I hope the New Jersey Supreme Court will uphold the lower court’s decision.
I hope everyone else in New Jersey sees though his sham and demand that that he stick to the pension reform plan he has been boasting about on his trips out of state. And if the reader here happens to live in a conservative state with public pension woes, take a lesson from New Jersey. Take a step back and look around to see in whose battlefield you are standing.