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Ahead of budget address, Democrats demand full pension payment

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Senate president Steve Sweeney and state Sen. Paul Sarlo speaking at the Statehouse Monday.
Senate president Steve Sweeney and state Sen. Paul Sarlo speaking at the Statehouse Monday. - (Andrew George)

Make a full payment into the state workers' pension fund or else there won't be a budget agreement, thus setting the stage for a government shutdown.


That's the hard line Senate president Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) took Monday morning at a news conference to address the state's fiscal situation ahead of Gov. Chris Christie's annual budget address Tuesday.

"We're going to have this pension payment funded or we won't pass a budget," Sweeney said.

The state is currently on the line for $1.7 billion in pension contributions and is committed to $2.4 billion in the next fiscal year.

In his State of the State address last month, Christie brought up the need to discuss "further changes" to the pension system and said that its scheduled increase in the coming fiscal year would impair the state's ability to spend on education, infrastructure improvement and public safety priorities.

"If we do not choose to reduce our soaring pension and debt service costs, we will miss the opportunity to improve the lives of every New Jersey citizen, not just a select few," Christie said in the speech.

Christie then took to the airwaves of Townsquare Media's monthly "Ask the Governor" radio program earlier this month to clarify his stance on pension payment after Democrats first threatened a government shutdown over the issue following the State of the State.

Christie said on the show that his words had been mischaracterized and that he had never explicitly said that his administration wasn't going to make the full payment.

"What I said was that we're not going to be able to fund other programs that we all want if we don't address the exploding costs of pension payments and debt service in our state," Christie said. "So what I said was that I want to open a conversation about how to deal with that. I never said I wasn't going to make the payment."

On Monday, Sweeney reiterated that the state's full pension commitment was not on the table for negotiation. When the deal was made, everyone involved "went into this knowing that was the obligation," he added.

"We made a promise and that's a promise I can't break," Sweeney said.

Sarlo, who chairs the Senate budget committee, said that the state's revenue shortfall, which could be potentially as much as $500 million, is partially due to the "overly optimistic" revenue projections put forth by the Christie administration "year-in, year-out."

When asked by a reporter if he would support a tax cut, which the Christie administration has hinted at, Sweeney waved off the idea as unrealistic.

"You've got to be kidding me right now," Sweeney said.

Sarlo said that while both Democrats and Republicans would love to get behind a tax cut, "we need to be realistic here with what we're faced with."

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Andrew George

Andrew George

Andrew George covers the Statehouse from NJBIZ's Trenton bureau. Born and raised in N.J., Andrew has also spent time as a reporter in D.C., Texas and Pa. His email is andrewg@njbiz.com and he is @AndrGeorge on Twitter.

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