John Birkner Jr. is mayor of Westwood and president of Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, Local 534.
NEW JERSEY’S State Public Employee Retirement System once again sits front and center as a focal point with lawmakers debating the state’s financial future. The issue has unfortunately morphed into a power play woven with the threads of political rhetoric. The workers who pay into the pension fund have long been cast as the culprits in a system described as unsustainable and destined for insolvency, while advocates of pension reform play sleight of hand with a system designed to protect a workforce into retirement. Their argument is being dictated through incomplete evidence and misleading allegations, influencing public opinion with a repertoire of catchphrases and the condemnation of public workers guilty simply of doing their jobs every day.
The refusal to address glaring deficiencies of the PERS while instead scapegoating the public workforce with furious denunciation makes the pure hypocrisy of pension reform worth exploring further.
Repetitious use of terms such as entitlement, unfunded liability, lifetime benefits and looming crisis serve as the precursor for the cunning comparison of New Jersey’s pension shortfalls to the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit. Thus, the illusion. The public is led to believe it is the typical worker draining funds from a once-stable system and putting at risk the security of thousands of retirees. The focus of our state’s fiscal woes are thus deftly steered away from the very parties that have accelerated the financial decline, and blame is instead placed directly onto the backs of the workforce.
The core issue is that the money going into the system is not keeping pace with the money going out. Conveniently omitted from discussions about the pension fund is the fact that the full-time workforce has always paid, and continues to pay, into a pension system in proportion to its full-time salary. The years of credit earned toward a worker’s pension are all based on real full-time work, documented and accounted for.
Fund is self-sustaining
In fact, the NJ PERS itself had been undeniably self-sustaining, so much so that it became fashionable for a long line of governors beginning with Christie Whitman all the way up to and including Governor Christie to raid funds contributed by public employees to cover budget shortfalls in other areas.
The most flagrant abuse and inconvenient truth is that business as usual continues with unabated payments of New Jersey Public Employee Retirement System funds to part-time elected and appointed officials who accumulate years of pension credit from having served as a mayor, councilmember, commissioner, legislative aide or other such public official. These years of service are then parlayed into a comfortable pension as a result of an end-of-career appointment to a plum patronage job that boosts pension payouts by astronomical amounts.
Peel back a layer or two on the public employee roster and it is easy to uncover those having been rewarded with up to six-figure salaries and who are now set up to receive a nicely enhanced pension upon retirement, even though their cumulative contributions into the state pension system were minuscule and based on a small stipend received as a part-time official.
Squirreled away in cubicles and offices statewide are beneficiaries that have contributed more to political campaigns than they have to the PERS. It is not a Democrat or Republican issue here. This is a matter of bipartisan abuse that not one legislator in the State of New Jersey is addressing in a meaningful way. Democrats blame Republicans, and Republicans blame Democrats for standing in the way of significant change. Yet they stumble over each other to take credit for “reform” that dramatically impacts the real workforce while keeping the public blissfully unaware that loopholes for abuse remain firmly in place, thus placating the political interests across the State.
Visit virtually any state or county agency and you can begin to unravel an extraordinary network of political friends and family from both sides of the aisle who are the beneficiaries of such enhanced pension eligibility.
The defenders of the so-called reform will be quick to say that newly elected or appointed officials can no longer qualify for PERS. This is only a baby step in the right direction, and not much more than a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. What has not been addressed as a significant problem are the thousands of officials who continue to be enrolled in PERS who stand to gain handsomely upon retirement with “to the victor go the spoils” job appointments that boost end of career salaries.
The “overhaul of public employee pension benefits” as touted by Christie in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week receives standing ovations; however, the continued good fortune for the politically connected spotlights the weakness in current pension reforms, which the governor has called his “biggest governmental victory.”
Those new laws implemented changes in the terms of employment that require public workers to contribute significantly more toward state pension and health benefits. Unfortunately, there have no similar retroactive changes to stop the flow of cash to those who game the system for millions of dollars a year, siphoning PERS funds by boosting pension payouts. The practice of politicians silently feeding at the public trough and greedily rewarding each other with the hard-earned benefits of our workforce is simply not justifiable. These not-so-subtle loopholes exacerbate the state pension woes and pass the burden directly to the legitimate rank and file employee and of course the taxpayer.
The practice of politicians silently feeding at the public trough and greedily rewarding each other with the hard-earned benefits of our workforce is simply not justifiable. These not-so-subtle loopholes exacerbate the state pension woes and pass the burden directly to the legitimate rank-and-file employee and, of course, the taxpayer.
While a small fortune is being made by those exploiting the pension loopholes, there is not a DPW laborer in the state of New Jersey that is getting rich from his or her salary or earned pension. Collective bargaining has helped to ensure quality-of-life measures for the workforce, and the pension system was designed to offer some protections for these employees into retirement after lengthy careers as full time public servants.
New Jersey’s public workers are not the cause of our PERS financial shortfalls, they are the reason New Jersey works.