Top New Jersey Lawmaker Calls for Tax on Millionaires to Help Fund Pensions

New Jersey

A New Jersey court ruled last month that the state acted illegally in cutting its pension contributions over the last two years.

As a result, the state will need to pay its full contribution in 2015 – which means New Jersey will need to come up with about $1.6 billion that hasn’t yet been budgeted for.

In lawmakers’ search for new streams of revenue, one idea has come to the forefront.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney is proposing a tax on millionaires.

The policy would boost the income tax on earnings over $1 million and could raise $600 million in revenue in its first year, but Gov. Chris Christie has historically been opposed to the measure.

More from NJ Spotlight:

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said [a millionaire’s tax] would help the state make “a good-faith effort” while giving public-worker unions an incentive to cooperate with government to make benefits more affordable.

“In my mind that means a millionaires tax, it really does,” Sweeney said in an interview with NJ Spotlight.

Though a bill hasn’t been crafted yet, he envisions something similar to the legislation lawmakers sent Christie last year that would have temporarily upped the income-tax rate on earnings over $1 million from 8.97 percent to 10.75 percent.

[…]

According to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that tracks state tax policies, New Jersey’s 8.97 percent top-end income tax rate is the sixth-highest in the country, behind California, 13.3 percent; Hawaii, 11 percent; Oregon, 9.9 percent; Minnesota, 9.85 percent; and Iowa, 8.98 percent.

[…]

The New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, the nonpartisan research wing of the state Legislature, said last year when it analyzed Sweeney’s proposal that boosting the top-end rate on earnings over $1 million would generate an estimated $580 million to $615 million in the first year.

Another concern Christie raised last week was that increasing the tax rate on millionaires could send more of them packing to states that already offer lower income tax rates, or levy no income tax at all.

That’s because the top 1 percent of tax filers typically cover roughly 40 percent of the total income tax haul for New Jersey, according to Department of Treasury figures…

It’s likely that the majority of New Jersey residents would be supportive of a millionaire’s tax. In a 2014 poll by Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, 66 percent of residents said they supported a tax on high earners, with revenue going toward pension contributions.

 

Photo credit: “New Jersey State House” by Marion Touvel – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg#mediaviewer/File:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg

13 Unions to Sue New Jersey Over Reduced Pension Payments

Chris Christie

A judge ruled late last month that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie acted outside the law when he cut state pension contributions by around $2 billion through FY 2015.

But the state will appeal the decision, and the full payments weren’t included in Christie’s recent budget proposal.

As a result, more than a dozen unions said this week that they will sue the state to force it to make its full contributions to the pension system.

From NJ.com:

More than a dozen unions today announced they plan to sue Gov. Chris Christie to force him to increase next year’s payment into the public worker pension system.

[…]

This lawsuit could be expected to mirror a suit filed last summer and decided just last week that argued those payments were contractually protected and Christie broke the law he signed when he slashed them.

“This governor’s continuing disregard for his own pension funding law leaves us no choice but to go back to court to resume this fight in court on behalf of hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers who make their full pension contributions and depend on the modest income they earn in retirement,” New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech said in a statement.

Christie would have to find an additional $1.7 billion in his $33.8 billion proposed budget to make the full $3 billion pension payment unions are demanding.

The lawsuit will specifically call for the state to make the full pension payment in 2015.

The state cut its 2014 payment as well, but successfully argued that the cut was the result of a fiscal emergency, and was therefore legal.

 

Photo By Walter Burns [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Union Leaders React to Christie Reform Proposals

talk bubbles

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unveiled a series of pension proposals that include freezing the current pension system for active employees and shifting them into a hybrid cash balance plan.

Throughout the week, union leaders publicly expressed their thoughts on the proposals.

Public safety unions weighed in, from NJ.com:

Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, noted that as his union is funded by municipalities, it is in far better financial shape than those funds that have been shorted by the state through the years and his members should not face higher costs and lower benefits.

“To propose solutions to further reduce employee benefits essentially ignores the math of (Police and Firemen’s Retirement System),” Colligan said, adding that the plan “punishes nearly 40,000 law enforcement officers and firefighters who have no part to play in the state’s underfunded pension plans.

His derision was echoed by Edward Donnelly, president of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association.

“We have seen the results of Christie’s previous ‘reforms’, increased obligations to our members, while New Jersey taxpayer’s burden continues to be even greater,” said Donnelly. “Instead of more deceptive back-room deals, now is the time for us to stand together to bring about meaningful changes that save our pension system without further burdening taxpayers.”

Other unions officials spoke out, as well:

NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer claimed the teacher’s union was “deeply disappointed” that Christie “overstated the nature of the understanding” reached with the governor’s commission after months of talks.

“The pension plan’s long-term problem has always been the state refusing to put the money in,” said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey state director of the Communication Workers of America, “Now, here we go again.” The New Jersey chapter of the CWA represents some 40,000 state workers, as well as 15,000 county and municipal workers.

Read more about Christie’s pension proposals here.

Moody’s: New Jersey Pension Ruling A “Credit Negative” For State

Chris Christie

A New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled this week that Chris Christie acted outside the law when he cut the state’s pension contributions $2.4 billion over two years.

That means, pending appeal, the state will be making its full contribution in 2015 – a development that hasn’t yet been budgeted for.

So while the ruling was good news for the state’s underfunded pension system, the decision is a “credit negative” for the state itself, according to Moody’s.

From NJ.com:

The flexibility of the state’s pension payment has been “a tool essential” to balancing the budget, Moody’s Investors Service said. Putting limitations on that amounts to a “credit negative.”

“Going forward, making the full pension contribution would incrementally improve the pension funding position, but would significantly increase budget pressure by reducing the state’s ability to fund other programs and potentially challenge the state’s liquidity,” Moody’s said.

[…]

“While it remains unclear whether the payment will be increased in fiscal 2015, a $1.6 billion obligation would comprise nearly 15 percent of the unspent budget,” Moody’s said.

A credit negative assessment doesn’t suggest a rating or outlook change — which could affect New Jersey’s interest rates — is imminent, but rather assesses the impact of a single event, Moody’s said.

Since the full pension payment isn’t budgeted for, lawmakers are worried that “devastating” cuts will have to be made in the current budget.

The situation might have been avoided had the state taken the same approach as Illinois in 2013.

When Illinois passed it’s pension overhaul it didn’t count the savings in the budget — because it knew a legal challenge was imminent.

 

Photo By Walter Burns [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

New Jersey Bill, Now on Christie’s Desk, Would Expand Pay-to-Play Rules for Pension Investments

shaking hands

With all the drama surrounding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s latest round of pension changes, one big pension-related development has been overlooked: on Monday, state lawmakers approved a bill that would expand pay-to-play rules as they relate to pension investments.

The bill, which would increase transparency around fees paid to private investment managers, was sent to Christie’s desk on Monday.

More from Philly.com:

[The bill] would expand restrictions on investments of state pension funds with outside money managers who donate to national political committees.

The legislation also would require the state Treasury Department to regularly publish reports disclosing fees paid to private managers who invest state pension funds.

Pay-to-play rules already prohibit the Division of Investment from awarding contracts to firms or investment managers who have donated to New Jersey political parties or campaigns in the preceding two years.

A 2010 federal law imposed a similar ban. Under that law, the Securities and Exchange Commission in June ordered Wayne-based TL Ventures Inc. to repay $250,000 in pension fees collected from Philadelphia and Pennsylvania after learning the firm’s founder had donated to Mayor Nutter and then-Gov. Tom Corbett.

But managers can still donate to national committees such as the Republican Governors Association or Democratic National Committee, which can spend money on and influence state politics. Legislation passed Monday by the Assembly on a 53-15 vote would close that loophole by extending the State Investment Council’s pay-to-play regulations to cover investors’ donations to national political committees.

The bill passed the Senate in October on a 25-8 vote, with seven abstentions.

Lawmakers believe the SEC pay-to-play rules are too lenient.

State pension officials, however, say the rules could harm the fund’s alternative investment portfolio; the fee disclosure requirement runs the risk of dissuading some investment managers from doing business with the fund.

Alternatives account for 28 percent of New Jersey’s pension investments.

 

Photo by Truthout.org via Flickr CC License

New Jersey Pension Commission Release Report; Proposal Would Bring Savings to State, Cuts to Workers

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unveiled a series of pension reform proposals at his budget address yesterday.

But he’s taking his cues from a just-released report from his pension commission, which he set up in the summer of 2014.

Christie acknowledged in mid-2014 that future pension changes would likely mean benefit cuts for workers. Now, we are getting more details about the specifics of the reforms Christie and his panel have in mind.

The five key pillars of the pension reform proposal, summarized by NJ.com:

1. Frozen Plan

The current pension plan would be frozen. Retirees would continue to receive their benefits, though without cost of living adjustments. Active employees would no longer accrue benefits under that plan.

2. “Cash balance” plan

The state would create a new “cash balance” plan, which is considered a hybrid between defined-contribution and defined-pension plans. Workers’ benefits are shown as a cash balance, funded by employee and employer contributions and investment returns, but they can take their payout as a lifetime annuity.

3. Health care premium change

Employees would pick up a larger share of their health care premiums, and health care coverage would be less generous overall. On average, employees pay 18 percent of their health care premiums. Under the proposal, that would increase to 25 percent, though higher-paid employees pay more. State and local governments pay, on average, 95 percent of the total cost of health care coverage, but the proposal calls for new health care plans that reduce the employer cost to 80 percent.

4. School plans

Local school districts would take on local education employee retirement benefits, which are currently paid for by the state, and the cost of the new cash balance plan. The commission estimates the savings from the health care cuts would more than cover those new responsibilities.

5. Constitutional amendment

Lawmakers would be asked to pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would appear on the November ballot and guarantee public employees adequate pension contributions from the state.

The commission’s report can be read here.

 

Cover photo credit: Walter Burns [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

New Jersey Lawmakers Warn of “Devastating” Budget Cuts in Wake of Court Pension Decision

New Jersey

A New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled this week that the state acted illegally when it cut its contribution to the state pension system in 2014.

If the state’s appeal of the ruling fails, it will have to come up with an additional $1.57 billion in 2015 in order to make its full payment to the pension system.

That money isn’t yet budgeted for – which means lawmakers will soon need to rearrange some items in the general budget to make space.

Lawmakers reacted this week to that steep price tag, warning of cuts that would come as a result. From NJ.com:

“The impact on programs at the end of the year would be devastating,” state Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) said. “The reality is we have to either make draconian cuts and make the payment…”

[…]

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said Christie created the problem with his “duplicitous assessment of how to handle our pension obligations,” which included touting his 2011 overhaul of the pension system and telling workers that it saved their pensions, and then arguing in court that his own law was unconstitutional.

“He has an obligation to come up with a solution, since he is the one who came up with a solution that put us in this predicament in the first place,” said Wisniewski,

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), however, said it’s up to the Legislature to figure out what to cut now.

“All budgets are prepared by the Legislature,” he said. “So the court is saying to the Legislature you have to put this much money in the pension fund. So I’m assuming the governor will ask the legislature to come up with the program cuts that would be needed to find $1.6 billion.”

While the Legislature must pass budgets, it’s Christie who first proposes them.

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris), a member of the budget committee, said the payment Judge Jacobson ordered is about 5 percent of the budget.

“We have to be able to find it. And I think the other thing it emphasizes is we need a new round of reforms to our pension system,” Webber said. “We need to change those promises for new employees and employees who are far enough out from retirement that they can plan their retirements accordingly.”

The lawmaker reactions came before details emerged about Christie’s new pension reform proposals.

The savings realized through the proposals, if enacted, could make the cutting process easier for lawmakers.

 

Photo credit: “New Jersey State House” by Marion Touvel – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg#mediaviewer/File:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg

Christie Budget Will Contain Pension Cuts; Full Payment Not Yet Figured In Despite Court Ruling

Chris_Christie_at_townhall

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will give his budget address on Tuesday afternoon, and details are already leaking about what it will contain.

The governor’s office says that the budget will contain numerous pension proposals, including some that cut benefits for public workers.

Christie will also announce that he will begin negotiating pension changes with the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association.

One thing the budget won’t contain: the state’s full actuarially required contribution to the pension system. The budget calls for a $1.3 billion payment to the system, which is the largest in state history.

But the payment was supposed to be closer to $3 billion. Christie cut the payment last year by nearly $1.5 billion; a judge ruled yesterday that New Jersey must pay the full contribution, but the state is appealing the ruling.

More from the Associated Press:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will propose a new round of major pension and health benefit cuts for public employees as he delivers his budget address Tuesday, a day after a judge ordered his administration to restore $1.57 billion in delayed payments to the state’s pension system.

Christie will dedicate his annual budget address to outlining the danger of the state’s spiraling pension and benefits costs and propose a series of changes based on a long-delayed study commission’s findings, according to guidance provided by the governor’s office.

Christie, who is considering a run for president in 2016, will also announce that the New Jersey Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union and long one of his main political foils — has signed onto a “road map” for further reforms. He’ll call on state lawmakers to join with him.

[…]

Christie is expected to propose a $1.3 billion payment into the pension system in fiscal year 2016 — a number his office is touting as the largest in history but which still doesn’t come close to the $2.25 billion that the earlier deal called for this year. Christie had been on board with the higher figure before cutting it back amid a surprise state revenue shortfall. The full payment for fiscal 2016 under the old agreement would have been around $3 billion.

New Jersey has the fourth largest pension liability in the country.

 

Photo by Bob Jagendorf from Manalapan, NJ, USA (NJ Governor Chris Christie) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Court: New Jersey Must Make Full Contribution to Pension System

gavel

A New Jersey Superior Court judge on Monday ruled that Gov. Chris Christie acted outside the law when he cut state pension contributions by more than $2 billion through fiscal year 2015.

Through FY 2015, the state’s scheduled pension contribution was $3.85 billion; but in an effort to divert funds to the general budget, Christie cut the pension payment down to $1.38 billion.

Unions sued him shortly after, alleging a breach of contract.

A judge now says Christie must make the full payments.

The full payments, however, are not included in Christie’s budget proposal. That’s because the state is appealing the ruling.

More from Reuters:

Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson said New Jersey could not renege on its obligations to teachers, firefighters and police who sued the governor and state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.

“The court cannot allow the State to ‘simply walk away from its financial obligations,’ especially when those obligations were the State’s own creation,” Jacobson wrote.

While New Jersey’s projected budget shortfall was “staggering,” the statute failed to adequately explain why the cuts were reasonable, the court said.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the governor would appeal.

“The Governor will continue to work on a practical solution to New Jersey’s pension and health benefits problems while he appeals this decision to a higher court where we are confident the judgment of New Jersey’s elected officials will be vindicated,” Drewniak said in a statement.

Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO union, which was one of the plaintiffs, said the decision “reinforces what should be black letter law, pension promises by government to the people who work for government are real contractual obligations that must be honored and must be funded.”

Under new GASB accounting rules, New Jersey’s pension system is 44 percent funded.

 

Photo by Joe Gratz via Flickr CC License

Former NJ Official: Christie Used Misdirection on Pension Payments in State of State Address

Chris Christie

During his State of the State address last month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a few remarks defending himself against accusations of short-changing the state’s pension system.

He claimed that he had contributed more to the pension system than any governor in New Jersey history.

That’s not a false statement. But it also doesn’t tell the full story.

Edward Buttimore, formerly of the state’s Attorney General’s Office, penned a column on Tuesday explaining the misdirection.

Buttimore writes:

When Gov. Chris Christie praised himself during the State of the State address for making the largest contributions to the State pension funds of any governor in New Jersey history, that statement was true, but not accurate.

While Gov. Christie has contributed $2.9 billion (if he makes the reduced $681 million payment for FY2015), what he fails to be clear about is that he will have skipped $14.9 billion in required pension payments during the past five years as Governor, according to his own Pension & Health Benefit Study Commission’s Status Report.

Former Gov. Corzine made $2.1 billion in pension payments while skipping an additional $6.4 billion required from 2007 to 2010.

In fact, Gov. Christie’s $14.9 billion skipped pension payments eclipses the $12.8 billion combined missed payments of his five predecessors over a 15-year period from 1996 to 2010. That was a pretty important fact that he omitted from his State of the State address.

For the last three years Gov. Christie has traveled the country congratulating himself for his 2011 bipartisan pension reforms, including prominently mentioning it during his keynote address for Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican National Convention. He then he failed to follow through on making the required payments.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Photo by Bob Jagendorf from Manalapan, NJ, USA (NJ Governor Chris Christie) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons