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With Grim Pension Warning, Christie Makes Bid For 'Lame Duck' Relevance

Suggests Dems better off pushing through pension overhaul while he's still in office

The Record (NorthJersey.com) — December 7, 2017

By Charles Stile, Political Columnist

NorthJersey.com
Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy speaks at the offices of New Jersey Citizen Action in Newark on Nov. 29, 2017. (Photo: Nicholas Pugliese / The Record)

Gov. Chris Christie made it clear Wednesday that he wants to add one final chapter to his legacy before he leave office in six weeks to write his memoir.

Christie urged the Democrats who dominate both houses of the Legislature to push through a second, explosive round of benefit givebacks in the final stretch of the lame duck session when outgoing lawmakers have nothing to lose and an outgoing Republican governor is willing to take the heat.

"My argument to Democrats all along has been 'Do it while I'm here and blame it on me,'' Christie said at a news conference downstairs from his temporary West State Street office, where he rolled out the final report of the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission.

"I took (the blame) in 2011 that way and I would be more than happy to take it right now if they wanted,'' Christie said, referring to the landmark clash with public employee unions, a powerful Democratic Party constituency.

Christie said the Democrats now had a "pure political opportunity" to enact the panel's recommendations, which called for cutting health benefits for state and local government employees by $4 billion and using the savings to fund their retirements.

There was a time when Christie didn't have to offer his services for hire. In his first term, Christie could dictate the terms of debate with very utterance or tongue-lashing. He bashed the unions with impunity. He delivered angry jeremiads on bloated worker benefits with a bombast and zeal that made him a hero to national Republican Party audiences around the country.

But on Wednesday, Christie's call to arms for another round of painful restructuring of benefits was met with a shrug. While no one should ever count out Christie as long as he has a grip on the levers of power, the idea of a frenzied, last-minute dash to restructure the benefits in six weeks seems unlikely.

At times, Christie even conceded as much Wednesday, given his successor, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, the Monmouth County Democrat who was elected with unanimous and fulsome support of public employee unions.
Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy speaks about the

Murphy is going to have to confront the challenge of closing a $90 billion unfunded liability and preventing some of the pension funds — the teacher's fund, especially — from going broke in 10 years. But it's a task he'll have to do in conjunction with a Democratic-controlled Legislature that is "owned lock and stock barrel'' by the unions, Christie said.

"I don't know, politically some of the positions that the governor-elect has taken, how he intends to deal with it,'' Christie said.

But the response to Christie's offer was muted at best. Sweeney, itching for revenge after the NJEA spent nearly $9 million in an unsuccessful bid to knock him out of office in November, is perhaps Christie's most obvious ally in a last-minute benefits overhaul. After all, Sweeney was Christie's chief collaborator in the 2011 reforms. But Sweeney's office had no comment. One Senate Democratic official suggested privately that it had no chance.

Even the NJEA, Christie's bete noire for eight years, refused to respond to Christie's characterization of the union as a "paper tiger" or comment on the threat of a late overhaul.

"Gov. Christie had eight years to address the state's pension funding failures and he failed to do so,'' said Steve Baker, an NJEA spokesman. "We look forward to working with Governor-elect Murphy to ensure that the state achieves responsible and sustainable pension funding going forward."

For his part, Murphy's office had little to say. "(Murphy) remains committed to the state living up to its obligations as a first and necessary step and working in good faith with all sides on a sustainable path forward,'' spokesman Dan Bryan said.

Christie thrives in calculated chaos that an 11th hour pension upheaval would provide. But he is also hoping to restore the luster of his 2011 achievement which has been overshadowed by the George Washington Bridge lane closing scandal and by his own backsliding on the pension reforms .

Two years after forging the agreement, Christie slashed promised state payments to the pension fund and stretched out the schedule for full funding from seven years to 10. Unions and Democrats cried betrayal and went to court but lost.

Despite the tumultuous history, the 2011 reforms did represent a breakthrough and demonstrated to future governors that the union power was not infallible and that painful changes could be imposed without being punished at the polls. (Sweeney's survival last month also demonstrated the same thing.) Christie stopped the practice of skipping pension payments and signed legislation calling for quarterly payments.

"If we're going to go back and like whistling a happy tune and making everybody happy, we're going to be broke,'' Christie said.

Christie enters lame duck with a bottom-of-the-barrel approval ratings. He has no soft-landing job waiting for him when he leaves office next month. And he's promising to write a tell-all book, which will include an account on how he "vehemently'' opposed the hiring of former Gen. Michael Flynn as Donald Trump's national security adviser. He has no book deal, but there have been "expressions of interest."

Christie would like to write an epilogue to his record on pension reform, but there are few, if any, expressions of interest in Trenton.

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