New Jersey gets closer to moving state assets to pensions
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration took the first step toward leveraging state assets to tackle its steep pension burden.
State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio issued a Request for Qualifications Feb. 7 for a state asset financial advisor who can determine the feasibility of using various assets to stabilize the severely underfunded pension system. The move is in line with recommendations outlined by the bipartisan 25-member New Jersey Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup in August.
“While the idea of maximizing the value of state assets has been discussed for many years, little concrete action has ever been taken,” said Muoio in a statement. “At the direction of the governor, we designed this RFQ to explore tangible, creative solutions to help maximize the state’s assets in order to minimize the burden to taxpayers.”
The blue-ribbon panel's report also called for developing of an inventory of state assets for potential transfer into the pension system.
The workgroup was assembled by New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who praised the Murphy administration last week for launching the RFQ process. The panel also recommended adopting a hybrid retirement system for new public-sector employees and those with less than five years of service. Sweeney said that without major changes, New Jersey’s pension and benefit costs will go up $4.2 billion over the next four years.
“The Treasury’s action is fully in line with our recommendations to analyze all of the asset holdings not only of the state government itself, but particularly of various independent authorities, including transportation infrastructure, water and sewer authorities, real estate and reservoirs, said Sweeney in a statement. “I am gratified to see the governor adopt one of our major recommendations, but this is just one part of a comprehensive solution to our state’s fiscal crisis.”
Sweeney noted that 2017 legislation steering New Jersey Lottery revenues toward the state’s pension system for the next 30 years has lowered the unfunded liability by $13 billion. As of June 2017, New Jersey’s pension debt was only 36% funded with an unfunded liability of $143.2 billion, according to a December analysis by the Volcker Alliance. The Volcker study noted that despite the lottery transfer, the net amounted injected into the Garden State’s pension system is not scheduled to reach the actuarially required contribution level until the 2023 fiscal year.
Rising pension liabilities drove 11 credit downgrades to New Jersey between 2011 and 2017 under former Gov. Chris Christie. The state’s general obligation bonds are rated A3 by Moody’s Investors Service, A-minus by S&P Global Ratings and A by Fitch Ratings and Kroll Bond Rating Agency. Only Illinois has lower ratings among the states.