Christie's pensions comments refuted by former N.J. governors

By Brent Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 17, 2015

Former Gov. Jim Florio speaks at the Statehouse in Trenton in 2013.

 

TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie's comments this week about how past governors mishandled New Jersey's public worker pension system has miffed a pair of former governors.

Former Gov. Jim Florio said Thursday he was "disappointed" in Christie and that the governor has his facts mixed up. And former Gov. Christie Whitman said she has "no idea" what Christie was talking about when he said she struck a deal with the state's largest teachers union that allowed teachers to skip on their pensions payments for two years.

"I appreciate his frustrations," Florio, a Democrat who served from 1990 to 1994, said of Christie, a Republican. "He didn't get a good hand dealt to him (on pensions) when he came in. But how you play that hand says as much about your values as it does about your character."

Christie's remarks came during a town hall in Hasbrouck Heights on Thursday when a teacher's husband who was in the audience criticized him over the state's pension problems. Christie stressed something he has said repeatedly: that a string of governors before him had shortchanged the pensions system for years and left him with one of the largest unfunded pension liabilities in the country. He singled out Florio, Republican Christie Whitman, and Democrats James McGreevey, Richard Codey, and Jon Corzine.

Christie then asked why public employee unions didn't sue those governors over the issue, as they are suing him.

"Where were they when Jim McGreevey was not paying into the pension and Dick Codey was not paying into the pension?" he said.

"They were in court," said Steve Panagiotou, the husband of a Teaneck teacher, who had asked Christie about the pension system from the audience.

"No they weren't," the governor said. "They didn't even sue them back then. No, because they were Democrats. They didn't even sue them because they supported them for office."

On Friday, the state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, accused Christie of lying. The union sued McGreevey's administration in 2003 over a deferred pension payment.

Christie also said they they didn't sue Whitman because she "gave teachers two years off from paying anything into their pension to buy them off to get the deal done that she wanted."

Steinhaur said "NJEA members have never missed a single pension payment, much less two years' worth, as Christie's alleged."

Whitman, who was governor from 1994 to 2001, said she doesn't "have a clue what (Christie) is talking about."

"I honestly don't know what deal he is referring to," she said.

Florio said there is an unwritten rule that current governors shouldn't badmouth former governors.

"But if you're going to do so, at least be accurate," Florio said. "I'm the last governor that fully funded the pension system."

And the NJEA and Florio were not on friendly terms at all during his term. The union held angry rallies and targeted Democratic lawmakers in the 1991 elections in response to school funding reforms that could have affected some teachers' pensions. The NJEA did not support Florio for re-election in 1993.

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor's office, clarified Christie's remarks.

"Governor Christie's point yesterday, which remains unaddressed by critics who fall back to the empty words of 'make the payment,' is that they have no way to pay for it without reform — because years of irresponsibility from all parties has created a crippling deficit in the pension fund. Unless they want a massive income tax increase or a 10 percent sales tax on every New Jerseyan, the only solution is to finally reform these systems and control costs over the long run," Roberts said Friday. "The only way we will address this crisis is to work together on actual reforms — no amount of rhetoric is going to fix over a decade of irresponsibility."

New Jersey's pension system has been underfunded for more than a decade. Christie's latest state budget proposal includes a $1.3 billion payment into the system — nearly two times the current fiscal year's contribution — but it's still far below what the governor agreed to under a 2011 pension overhaul he signed into law.

More than a dozen unions have filed a lawsuit against Christie to force him make the full $3 billion payment called for under that law. State attorneys filed a brief Thursday arguing that the courts can't make the governor do so.

Christie instead is pushing a proposal for public employees to agree to less-generous health care plans, allowing him to make the full $3 billion into the pension system.

"I'm not looking for this fight," the governor said at the town hall Thursday. "I don't want it. And when I passed the law in 2011, both myself and the Legislature hoped that that was going to fix the problem. It didn't."

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