Saturday, April 11, 2015

You can't fool all of the people all of the time...

Step right up folks, pay your money and witness the most outrageous spectacle east of the Mississippi.  And make no mistake, whether you peek around the curtain or not, in Chris Christie’s New Jersey, you ARE paying.
Credit downgrades, corporate welfare, cronyism, scandals, soaring legal fees, political grandstanding, broken promises….and we’re just getting warmed up.  Because what’s happening in Christie’s NJ isn’t good governance.  It’s a carnival sideshow.
Take, for example, the recent revelation by IBT investigative reporter, David Sirota, that during Governor Christie’s time in office, NJ’s pension funds have been bled of$1.5Billion in management fees, paid to an exclusive list of Wall Street firms, hedge fund managers, and GOP donors.  In 2014 alone, the payout was $600M; a near five-fold increase over 2009.  Put another way, those fat paydays for the governor’s cronies cost the taxpayers $1.6M per day.  Take that in for a minute.
Governor Christie recently quipped, “If you’re not a millionaire, but want to feel like one, come to NJ…and we’ll tax you like a millionaire.”  That line got quite a chuckle from his hand-picked audience.  What’s not so funny is that if you’re connected enough to get a gig managing the state’s pension funds, you can actually BE a millionaire…600 times over.  And then you can live wherever you want.
But you won’t likely want to live in NJ where Gov. Christie’s policies are slowly chipping away at one of the finest public education systems in the country.  Whether your metric is NAEP scores, graduation rates, AP scores, student/teacher ratios, access to high quality preschool programs, educational opportunities, equity in achievement, school safety, or annual rankings by CQ Press or US News & World Report, NJ public schools consistently rank among the highest in the nation.  So it’s hard to understand why Gov. Christie describes them as “failure factories.”  Or why he berates the state’s dedicated teachers while simultaneously starving the schools and children they serve of adequate funding and resources.
Unless of course you peek behind the curtain and catch a glimpse of the $108M price tag for the controversial PARCC test, or the $82M subsidy paid to test author, Pearson, a deal that netted zero new jobs in NJ.  It’s Sideshow 101, folks…concoct a monster no one can resist leering at, keep the curtain just high enough to maintain plausibility, and funnel the money out the back door before anyone realizes they’ve been duped.
In 2011, Gov. Christie championed and signed into law Chapter 78, which increased public employee pension contributions to 7.5% of salary, and also required them to pay substantial contributions toward health benefits.  In return, the state was to adhere to a seven-year schedule of increasing payments to the pension fund, until they reached full actuarial funding level in 2018.  At the time, he bragged about reaching across the aisle to finally solve NJ’s pension crisis.
But now the governor is hitting the carnival circuit again, decrying what he calls the cushy retirement benefits of public employees, when he knows full well that NJ public pensions rank 95th out of the 100 largest plans nationwide.  You see, while public employees have kept their end of the Chapter 78 bargain, the governor has defaulted on his.  And in order to ensure the success of his reverse Robin Hood scheme, he needs to distract the average taxpayer from looking too closely at the facts, while pitting them against the state’s dedicated public servants.
It’s downright Seussian, folks.  We haven’t seen this level of chicanery since Sylvester McMonkey McBean grew wealthy preying on the insecurities and jealousies of the unsuspecting Sneetches.
If the governor told the whole truth, he would admit that public employee pensions are not “entitlements.”  He would acknowledge that they are actually deferred compensation, earned over many years of service, and heavily financed by employee contributions.  He would concede that public pensions are, in fact, a vital part of the economy.
The National Institute for Retirement Security notes that each $1 “invested” by NJ taxpayers in public pensions supports $8.82 in total economic activity.  In fact, retired public workers, spending their pensions, supported $15Billion in total economic output in the state of NJ, including the support of 96,763 jobs.  It turns out that when public employees accept some of their wages as deferred income in retirement, everyone wins.  And inconvenient as it may be to the governor’s narrative, public employees, and pensioners, are taxpayers too.
The real pension crisis in NJ is not the current level of benefits, or even the very existence of public pensions; it’s the state’s abject failure to pay their bills.  Every governor since Christine Whitman has failed to fund or fully fund the pension system.  That’s almost twenty years of fiscal sleight-of-hand on the part of the state government, while public employees have made every single one of their payments…on time and in full.
Our legislators need to know that the people of the Garden State are a people of their word, and they expect their elected representatives to be as well.  It’s time to stop the shenanigans, and deflections, and false choices.  In a NJ where we can afford $4B in new corporate welfare, we surely have the money to honor our promises to the state’s public servants.  To suggest otherwise is just insulting.  And no amount of carnival showmanship can disguise that.

Written by Carrie Odgers with Marie Creste

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