State Street: Legislature moves ahead on judge contributions
One agenda item unlikely to be derailed by the storm is an effort to increase the amount judges contribute toward their pensions and health benefits.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment last week giving the Legislature the right to increase judicial contributions. Now state Sen. Shirley K. Turner (D-Trenton), the prime sponsor of the referendum bill, expects the Legislature to use that new power by the end of the year. The bill is already being drafted, said Turner.
The vote should bring an end to a nearly 18-month saga over public worker benefits. Gov. Chris Christie last year signed a bipartisan reform bill boosting the contributions of all state workers, including judges. But the state Supreme Court in July exempted judges from the law, saying the new requirements violated a ban on cutting judicial salaries.
Turner said last week’s landslide victory proves voters see this not as a question of judicial independence, but of dollars and sense.
“It shows that the voters want fiscal responsibility and also they want taxpayer fairness for everybody, not just those who are making less money than they are,” she said.
Turner noted that judges are among the highest-paid state employees while their pension system is the most under-funded of any public worker pension fund. At the time of the court ruling in July, the Judicial Retirement System had an unfunded liability of $280.5 million, able to meet barely half of its obligation.
“When they retire, they retire with 75 percent of their salaries and they’re only paying a 3 percent premium for that kind of benefit,” she said. “So after they retire, the average person recoups that entire amount of money they paid into the pension fund within the first six months, yet they benefit over $2 million over the course of their life on the average.”
Asked if she expects the bill to face any trouble in the Legislature, Turner said, “Absolutely not.”
Storm recovery expected to shape policy agenda
Last week was election week in Trenton, but one wouldn’t have known it on State Street. All eyes remained squarely focused on the storm recovery, both short term and long term.
“That to me is the first thing that I think everybody is going to be dealing with until there is some plan in place and people begin to feel they can start to get back to normal,” said Michael P. Affuso, vice president and director of government relations at the New Jersey Bankers Association.
Affuso said it was still difficult to get gas last week in northern New Jersey, where his organization is based. He said politicians likely won’t push their own agendas while constituents are still without heat or electricity.
“It’s going to be a bit of a breather,” he said. “Folks are focusing on constituent issues before there’s any real policy questions.”
Barbara DeMarco, vice president at Porzio Governmental Affairs, said she expects the agenda in Trenton to be marked by the storm even after things return to normal.
“I just think there’s going to be a real ranking of issues going forward because of the devastation of this storm, which should be the number one issue,” she said.
DeMarco said there’s a good chance of legislation related to price gouging, the environmental issues raised by building on the shore, and utilities.
“I think you’ll probably see legislation that deals with infrastructure because it (the storm) shows where there are weaknesses with infrastructure,” she said.
For Komjathy, lights shine at shore before Lambertville
Most of the lobbying firms and associations on State Street were back up and running last week, but the same couldn’t be said for some lobbyists’ homes.
Aladar G. Komjathy, managing partner at Komjathy & Stewart LLC, was plenty frustrated with Jersey Central Power & Light, the utility that provides power – usually – to his Lambertville home.
Komjathy was still without power on Nov. 6, eight days after Hurricane Sandy snapped trees and power lines throughout the Garden State.
Komjathy, an elected fire commissioner in Lambertville, said city officials have been frustrated not just with repair times, but also with what he said was a lack of communication by the state’s second-largest utility.
“I’m not an emergency management expert or anything like that, but as a guy who’s been on State Street here, as a guy in business, if I responded to my clients like they did I’d be fired,” he said.
Komjathy also has a house on the shore, the area that saw some of the worst devastation. Ironically the shore house, in Ocean Grove, got power back before Lambertville.
While Komjathy was irked at JCP&L’s lack of responsiveness, he said he had the opposite experience when contacting Christie’s office on behalf of clients.
“The governor’s been outstanding during this process,” he said. “These guys are good. If they know about a problem, they get you an answer and they get it quickly.”
Southern chamber opposes constitutional fix on wages
The Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey is standing with a coalition of other business groups to oppose a move by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney to enshrine automatic minimum wage increases in the state constitution.
Kathleen A. Davis, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the chamber, said the issue isn’t a constitutional matter.
“Truly the power is in the hands of the Legislature to act on an issue like this,” Davis said. “They are specifically empowered to make this change, and I think amending the constitution is something that really should only be done in very limited circumstances.”
NJBIZ misstated the chamber’s position in the Oct. 29 State Street column.
The chamber opposes Sweeney’s proposal, which would link minimum wage increases to the Consumer Price Index if approved by voters. Davis said the group has long opposed minimum wage hikes, but she said the amendment proposal makes the idea “more objectionable.” She said businesses can’t afford to incur new expenses at a time of fragile economic recovery.
“For many industries, when the competition is so stiff, it’s really difficult for them to increase the cost of their product because people are just not going to be able to pay for it,” she said.