New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Tuesday unveiled pension and health care reform measures that would help curb the state’s unfunded liabilities while passing more of those costs on to employees.
Unfunded retirement liabilities total $46.8 billion for the state and its other post-employment benefits obligation is $56 billion underfunded — largely for retiree health care benefits.
Christie said the state must change its retirement and health care systems to help preserve those plans for future retirees.
“I know these reforms will not be popular with everyone,” Christie said in a statement. “I also know that failure to follow through with dramatic pension reform will imperil the system for everyone, and that failure to control and share costs of health care benefits will continue to eat away at our state and local budgets. We must reverse the damage caused by fairy-tale promises that have fattened benefits and pensions to unsustainable levels while ballooning unfunded liabilities to breathtaking levels.”
The Republican governor’s agenda includes changes for both current employees and retirees. It would also affect all four of the state’s retirement programs for teachers, police and firefighters, public employees, and judges. All would require legislative approval in order to become law.
Christie is looking to increase employee contributions, boost the retirement age to 65 from 55, and roll back a 9% increase in pension benefits that lawmakers authorized in 2001. Under his plan, employees would contribute a uniform 8.5% towards their retirement. Currently, employees pay from 3% to 8.5% of their salaries to the fund. Pension benefits would be calculated using an employee’s highest earnings over five years, rather than three.
The plan includes increasing early-retirement qualifications to 30 years of service from 25. Retirees would no longer receive cost-of-living adjustments.
Christie wants to change the pension fund’s expected rate of investment return to 7.5% from 8.25%, “to reflect a more realistic picture of today’s investment climate,” according to a fact sheet of the proposed reforms.
In response to the proposals, Senate President Stephen Sweeney Tuesday said Democratic lawmakers are also eager to make pension and health care programs sustainable, but insisted that the state must step forward and pay its share.
In the past, both Republican and Democratic governors have skipped payments to the state’s pension fund, which added to its unfunded liability. The fiscal 2011 budget, Christie’s first spending plan after taking office in January, misses a $3 billion payment to the pension fund. Fiscal 2011 began July 1.
“We can’t expect public workers to pay more and not hold up our end of the deal any longer,” Sweeney said in a statement. “If the problem is as great as [the state] treasurer says, we can’t expect workers to shoulder the entire cost of fixing it.”
The administration calculates that absent reforms, New Jersey’s unfunded pension liability will escalate to $181 billion in 2041 from the current $46.8 billion. Christie estimates that with his proposals, the state’s unfunded retirement obligation will be $23 billion in 2041.
Proposed health care benefit changes include employees paying 30%. The state currently pays for 92% of health care benefits. Government workers would also pay a percentage of the plan’s premium rather than a percentage of their salary towards health care. He also proposed increases to retiree co-pays, but not retiree contributions for health care.