Christie vetoes two pension bills, signs 29 others

Gov. Chris Christie signed nearly 30 pieces of legislation into law Monday, but a bill to force the administration to apply $300 million of budget surplus to the state's public employee pension systems did not make the cut.

Christie vetoed that pension bill, along with a second measure that would have forced the state to make quarterly payments to the pension systems rather than a single payment.

The vetoes are the latest salvos in an ongoing battle between the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature over the underfunded pension system.

In late June, Democrats proposed a budget that called for the state to make a $3.1 billion payment toward the pension systems that was promised in a 2011 pension and benefits reform law, but Christie used his line-item veto to reduce the payment to $1.3 billion, arguing that was all the state could afford.

The governor also vetoed a proposed millionaire's tax and corporate business tax surcharge approved by the Democratic majority to provide more revenue for the pension payment.

Christie, who has made entitlement reform one of the major components of his presidential campaign, has called on the Legislature and public employee unions to negotiate new benefits reforms. The plan he favors would freeze the existing employee pensions and create a new defined contribution system similar to a 401(k) but under the control of public employee unions.

Democrats have said the state must keep its promise to employees before seeking additional reforms, but they have privately discussed some changes with the unions, among them increasing the number of years for the phase-in of the full state pension payment recommended by actuaries.

More recently, Senate President Stephen Sweeney called on the federal government to provide loans to states to help shore up their pension systems.

Democrats had pitched using $300 million in surplus from the 2015 fiscal year, which ended July 1 for an early "prepayment" toward the underfunded pensions as a fiscally prudent action that could have garnered goodwill with unions burned by Christie cuts to the state's promised pension payments.

In his veto message, Christie called the move an "accounting trick" to support a larger pension payment than the state can afford.

"In short, the Legislature is attempting to appropriate money that doesn't exist, for a fiscal year that has already closed," Christie wrote in the veto message. "Instead of accounting gimmickry, the legislative majority should embrace reality and join with my administration in a realistic discussion of necessary reforms to the pension and health benefits systems."

Likewise, in his veto of the bill requiring quarterly payments, Christie said the measure "does nothing at all to repair or reform the fundamentally unsustainable pension and health benefits systems currently in place."

Democrats had said both measures would have provided more investment revenue for the beleaguered pension systems.

"A prepayment would be the smart and prudent move to provide more fiscal stability and generate savings," said Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford. "It wouldn't compensate for the governor's failure to make the full, legally-required payment, but it would have been a step in the right direction."

"Employees have continually stepped up and contributed more and more each year, and the state must live up to its end of the bargain," said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra. "Holding onto this cash makes it clear that the governor would rather claim our pension system a lost cause instead of chipping away responsibly at the deficit whenever possible."

The leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, and the Communications Workers of America slammed the vetoes as lacking common sense and hurting workers.

“These vetoes are just more evidence that when it comes to pension funding, Gov. Christie always chooses the most harmful course," NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said in a statement. “Quarterly payments are a common-sense approach to pension funding that would lower costs for taxpayers by using the power of the market. It's a concept that enjoyed broad bipartisan support until the governor politicized it. Likewise, prepayment of a portion of this year’s pension contribution would have allowed the state to reap the benefits of market gains throughout the year."

Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the CWA, said Christie was deliberately harming the pension systems.

"Even when the state has the money — or when it wouldn't cost a penny — Gov. Christie acts to deliberately harm the pension systems that one in 10 New Jerseyans depend upon," Rosenstein said. "Christie may be out of state campaigning for president, but he's still hurting the people who live and work here with both his veto pen and callous disregard for their well-being."

Among the 29 bills Christie signed were measures to make changes to the state's juvenile justice system.

The reforms include increasing the minimum age to waive a juvenile into adult court from 14 to 15, and for transferring a teen from a juvenile detention facility to an adult prison from 16 to 18.

Certain young offenders also will be permitted to serve their entire sentence in a juvenile facility until they turn 21, and the Juvenile Justice Commission will be required to collect, record and analyze data on all New Jersey waiver cases and report on the findings.

Among the supporters of the bill was Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, R-8th of Evesham, who was the lone Republican sponsor. She said reforming the juvenile justice system would improve the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders and provide relief to the state's overburdened prisons and correctional facilities.

Other bills signed by the governor would allow American Sign Language to qualify as a world language for high school graduation requirements, and expand the number of safe havens for leaving newborn infants to include firehouses and emergency squads, as well as hospitals and police stations.

Sen. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, sponsored the sign language bill, and Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, R-8th of Evesham, sponsored the safe havens legislation.