New Jersey Pension Panel Faces “Big Test”

New Jersey State House

When Chris Christie created the Pension and Benefit Study Commission, the skeptics were quick to point out the politics of the decision.

The panel was formed to recommend reforms for the state’s pension system; but when Christie announced his appointees, some thought its real function was to act as a political shield for the governor, who has said benefit cuts are likely on the horizon for state workers.

The panel is set to release its latest report in November. The editorial board of the New Jersey Star-Ledger says the report will be a “big test” for the panel:

The panel is expected to issue its report within a month. If it offers a lopsided solution that relies entirely on a second round of benefit cuts, its report will be dead on arrival. Democrats would not consider a solution like that, and for good reason.

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Democratic leaders say they will not consider more benefits cuts until Christie restores full payments. That can’t be done without a tax increase, which Christie finds equally repugnant.

The job of this panel is to find the political sweet spot, to come up with a repair plan that both sides might accept. If it fails that test, its report will gather dust and its mission will have failed.

In the end, Democrats will have to accept some new benefit cuts. The state’s fiscal condition is much worse than anyone expected when this deal was signed in 2011, thanks mostly to the sputtering economy. If New Jersey had simply matched the average state since the Great Recession, it would have raised roughly $3 billion more in annual revenues and the 2011 reform would probably have survived.

Democrats can’t expect taxpayers to make up the entire shortfall if there are reasonable cuts to be made. One example: In its preliminary report, this panel noted that the state’s health benefits remain generous, and that some might qualify as “Cadillac plans” under Obama care. The state also treats early retirees more generously than Social Security does. The panel, no doubt, will have a long list of soft spots like this.

Christie needs to face reality, too. He can’t expect public workers to bear the entire burden when the state that has shortchanged these funds for so long, and when Christie himself broke his commitment to do better. And after years of fiscal crisis, there is simply no spare money in the treasury. That means a tax increase is needed.

This is a bipartisan panel, but Christie made all the appointments, a big mistake that undercuts its credibility. If its members want to have impact, they will have to declare their independence by offering a balanced repair plan.

If that leaves both sides unhappy, then the panel will have done its job by telling the hard truth about this unforgiving math.

The panel’s first report can be read here.

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