Sweeney threatens government shutdown over pensions

Senate President Stephen Sweeney: Budget "has to have" pension payment.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney: Budget "has to have" pension payment.
Posted: January 31, 2014

TRENTON State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Wednesday that he would shut down the government if Gov. Christie does not publicly commit to fulfilling the state's pension obligations in this year's budget.

"If I have to shut the government down, I will," Sweeney, the top elected Democrat in state government, said in an interview with The Inquirer. "When the governor hands us a budget, it has to have that pension payment in it."

Christie is to present his annual budget in February. If the pension payment is not included, Sweeney added, "we will not do even budget committee hearings."

The state constitution mandates that lawmakers produce a balanced budget. If they do not pass one by June 30, the end of the fiscal year, the government could close, though many previous budget delays have not actually forced a shutdown.

The only government shutdown in state history occurred in 2006, when Gov. Jon S. Corzine and the Legislature reached an impasse over his proposed increase in the sales tax. As a result, tens of thousands of "nonessential" employees were furloughed for days at Corzine's order.

In 2011, Christie, a Republican, working with the Democratic-controlled Legislature, signed a law requiring New Jersey's public employees to contribute more toward their pensions. The law also required the state to make full contributions by 2018, with payments increasing each year until then.

Christie warned in his State of the State address this month that the increase in pension and debt service costs could reach nearly $1 billion by fiscal year 2015. After he outlined a series of proposed changes, such as extending the school day and year, he said the state could not afford to fund such programs because of those costs.

"We need to have the conversation now about further changes to our pension system and to adding further to the state's debt load," Christie said in the Jan. 14 speech. "But the time to avoid this conversation and these choices is nearly over."

After the speech, Sweeney and other Democrats immediately accused Christie of reneging on his commitment to the pension fund.

Asked about Sweeney's comments Wednesday, Christie spokesman Colin Reed said in an e-mail: "The governor means exactly what he said at the State of the State: We need to have a conversation about changes to our pension system so that we can afford the priorities we all agree are important."


aseidman@phillynews.com

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@AndrewSeidman

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