Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Hopes for Pension Amendment Crushed

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Hopes for Pension Amendment Crushed

Article excerpt

A ballot question to mandate more funding for New Jersey's troubled pension system -- costing an estimated $20 billion over five years -- is all but dead this year, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Thursday.

Sweeney's announcement marked a sharp reversal on what had been his top legislative priority. Sweeney, a Democrat who is expected to run for governor in 2017, spent more than a year pitching his plan as a lasting fix for New Jersey's pension-funding crisis, one of the worst in the country.

But this week, Sweeney backed off his promise to put the pension question on November's ballot and angrily accused some union leaders of attempting to bribe him and other senators in exchange for approving the ballot question -- a charge that the unions strongly deny.

"I'm not going to bend to public union leaders," Sweeney said Thursday at a State House news conference.

The Assembly approved the ballot question in June. But the Senate has not done so and would need to act before the constitutional deadline on Monday to place the measure on November's ballot.

Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the Senate would not vote on the pension amendment amid the stalemate over another budget crisis: how to fund transportation projects across the state.

Plans to replenish the state's Transportation Trust Fund would raise the gas tax while cutting other taxes, what lawmakers describe as a package deal that would fund transit projects and soften the blow on New Jersey residents through several cuts to other taxes.

Called 'irresponsible'

Sweeney said it would be "irresponsible" to proceed with the pension amendment at a time when lawmakers do not know how much a potential transportation deal will cost in future tax revenue. Of the two leading transportation plans, one would cost $550 million and the other $1.7 billion in lost annual revenue after being phased in over several years. Sweeney ruled out raising taxes or cutting from other areas of the budget to meet pension and transportation costs.

The transportation standoff between Democrats and Governor Christie has caused a statewide shutdown of road projects, leaving many contractors out of work for the past month. The impasse is unlikely to be resolved before Monday, Sweeney said. But the pension amendment might come back next year, at the same time voters elect a new governor, he added.

"No one has fought harder than I have, since I've been here, to protect the pension system of this state," Sweeney said. "We must continue to fund the pension system, but in good conscience we cannot move a pension question to voters and cause irreparable harm to so many counting on us."

Union leaders assailed Sweeney on Thursday, a rare sight in Trenton, where Democrats typically enjoy strong union support and vice versa. …

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