New Jersey isn’t usually considered exciting news. But it wouldn’t have hurt the national media to pay a bit more attention to what happened recently when Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine tried to sell the public on the largest borrowing scheme in American history.
Mr. Corzine’s motive was the looming disaster in the state’s public-employee retirement costs. As in other states, New Jersey politicians for years have promised government employees lavish retirement packages but failed to put aside money to fund them. The unfunded liabilities are far in excess of a trillion dollars nationally.
New Jersey faces one of the worst crises. The state pension plans cover not just state employees, but also teachers and law-enforcement personnel at the county and local levels. When the former CEO of Goldman Sachs was elected governor in 2005, he seemed uniquely qualified to address the problem, thanks to his grasp of finance.
Unfortunately, he also had a grasp of politics. And the politics of the Democratic Party require that benefits for public employees be expanded, not reduced. Ever since the New Deal, Democrats have embraced a trickle-down theory on public-employee benefits. The public employees get gold-plated benefits first, and this creates pressure on private employers to eventually match those benefits for their workers. As union leader Carla Katz told me, the Democrats embrace “the progressive theory that unless you create a substantial wage and benefits package that reflects good jobs and the ability to have a middle-class life style, there will be a perpetual race to the bottom.”
Ms. Katz is the New Jersey state president of Communications Workers of America, which represents thousands of state employees. She’s also the ex-girlfriend of the governor. Eyebrows were raised when her ex-squeeze addressed a Trenton, N.J., rally of about 10,000 public workers in 2006 and yelled, “We will fight for a fair contract!”
We? Apparently, no one told the governor he was in management. And at the time, management was being pressed to make the sort of changes that could have cut the pension burden, such as raising the retirement age and putting new hires into the public version of 401(k) plans.
Mr. Corzine rejected those reforms. That left him looking for money to make up unfunded liabilities of an estimated $25 billion for the pension fund and $58 billion for post-retirement medical benefits. Politicians in other states had sold their toll roads and gotten billions. And as toll roads go, New Jersey’s are among the busiest in the country. Mr. Corzine put up the idea of a sale as a trial balloon. The unions shot it down. But the governor came back with another trial balloon, this one based on a bond sale the size of the Hindenburg.
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