What Christie, N.J. unions are saying about big pension court ruling

By Samantha Marcus | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on June 09, 2016

Gov. Christie answers questions outside the Mendham Township Emergency Services Building polling station after voting Tuesday.

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TRENTON — The state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against public workers who'd challenged a state law freezing cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions.

The court found the 2011 law did not explicitly extend an absolute right to COLAs, leaving government retirees locked in at their current pension payouts until their pension funds improve.

Here are key reactions to and excerpts from the decision and the dissent:

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, writing for the majority and joined by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and justices Anne Patterson, Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Lee Solomon, and Judge Mary Catherine Cuff:

"In this instance, proof of unequivocal intent to create a non-forfeitable right to yet-unreceived COLAs is lacking. Although both plaintiff retirees and the State advance plausible arguments on that question, the lack of such unmistakable legislative intent dooms plaintiffs' position. We conclude that the Legislature retained its inherent sovereign right to act in its best judgment of the public interest and to pass legislation suspending further COLAs."

Justice Barry Albin, in his dissent

"Many public employees may not have retired or may have deferred their retirement had COLAs not been guaranteed as part of their pension benefits program. Although the Legislature had the right to suspend COLAs for those public employees whose pension benefits had not vested and who had yet to retire, it did not have the right to do so for those public employees who retired expecting that the State would keep its word. The Legislature did here precisely what the United States and New Jersey Constitutions prohibit: it passed a law impairing the obligation of its own contract."

Eddie Donnelly, president of the the New Jersey Firefighters' Mutual Benevolent Association

"Today's decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court is appalling, however, at a time when first responders are among a class of workers that are under attack, it is not a surprise. It hits our most vulnerable members especially hard, and it gives younger firefighters/EMTs and dispatchers pause, questioning whether or not risking their health and safety for their entire career will leave them subject to a post-work life of financial insecurity."

Gov. Chris Christie

"Under today's Supreme Court decision state taxpayers have won another huge victory, one that spares them from the burden of unaffordable benefit increases for public employee unions. ... It also affirms my administration's position that our Constitution and public pension system must work for all New Jerseyans, not just the special class of public union employees who represent just 8.9% of New Jersey's population."

Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association

"I am outraged that the Court has condoned the actions of Gov. Christie and the New Jersey Legislature in taking away the COLAs that our members have earned over the course of their careers. This is theft, plain and simple."

Charles Ouslander, retired prosecutor and plaintiff

"Based on this decision, all public employees should be gravely concerned that their remaining pension benefits have any legal protections left. In addition, given the court's past decision ... that upheld underfunding of the pension system, despite another contractual obligation, pensioners are now only left with the obligation to pay increased contributions with nothing in return."

Baye Larsen, Moody's Investors Service lead analyst for New Jersey

"The State of New Jersey Supreme Court decision to uphold the Cost of Living Adjustment suspension for pensions eliminates a major threat to the state's fiscal stability, which is already challenged by narrow reserves and large, rapidly growing pension costs."

Patrick Colligan, president of the state Policemen's Benevolent Association

"Retired officers are living on fixed incomes and approximately 80% do not receive Social Security benefits. The burden caused by the state skipping pension payments should not fall on the backs of our retirees."

Stephen Sweeney, New Jersey Senate president

"I understand the frustration. If properly managed, municipal, county, police and fire should be able to get their COLAs restored, because they're all closer to 80 percent funding. You have two pension systems that have a real problem and it's the teachers and it's the state employees. And the problem is not because of the teachers and the state employees. The problem is because the state didn't make their payments."

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