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Legal victory does not end Christie's pension headaches

When New Jersey's high court ruled last week that Gov. Christie had the authority to cut billions from payments he had promised the state pension system, it spared the governor a massive budget shortfall as he prepares to announce a presidential decision.

When New Jersey's high court ruled last week that Gov. Christie had the authority to cut billions from payments he had promised the state pension system, it spared the governor a massive budget shortfall as he prepares to announce a presidential decision.

Though the legal victory over public-worker unions averted immediate crisis, it did not relieve Christie - or state lawmakers - of a reality less worthy of campaign-trail celebration: an unfunded pension liability that continues to strain the state budget and funds for many workers at risk of running out of money within the next decade.

Credit-rating analysts warn that New Jersey's failure to at least keep pace with the escalating pension payments prescribed by a 2011 law Christie championed will increase its liabilities, though the governor argues that the state cannot afford the payments without large tax increases.

No clear solution is on the horizon. Top Democratic lawmakers say they will pass a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that includes a full pension payment in accordance with the law, even though Christie is expected to veto a tax increase on income over $1 million and other increases likely to underpin it - similar to the scenario that played out last year.

And while a Christie-appointed commission earlier this year proposed a pension system overhaul that would freeze the existing plans and pare health benefits, union leaders say they are unwilling to negotiate with a governor they accuse of failing to hold up his end of the bargain.

"There's no reason for the governor to bring the unions back" to the negotiating table, said Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University. "He's got his eyes on the prize, and it ain't the front office in the Statehouse in Trenton."

But as Christie eyes a higher office, he would benefit from a success story at home, said Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor.

Noting that the pension liability has contributed to repeated downgrades of the state's credit rating under Christie, Kean said: "If we don't get a hold of some of these problems and continue these downgrades, that's going to be a hard record to run for president on."

Christie has said he will decide this month on a 2016 campaign.

In addition to calling for pension and health benefit changes, Christie has proposed slowing down the state's scheduled pension contributions.

Under Christie's first-term pension overhaul, the state was to phase in bigger contributions over seven years, at which point it would be able to make the annually required contribution recommended by actuaries. The overhaul, intended to stabilize the chronically underfunded pension system, also forced workers to pay more.

Now the governor - who followed the schedule for two years before a revenue shortfall prompted him to scale back payments this fiscal year and last - wants to spread the contributions over 10 years. Using that strategy "really does get us where we need to be," State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff told the Senate Budget Committee last month.

This would maintain each pension plan's solvency, he said, and is projected to increase the aggregate funding level - or ratio of the pension plans' assets to the present value of their current obligations - to 74 percent by 2043.

That would be up from 54 percent at the end of fiscal year 2013 - fourth worst in the nation, according to a September 2014 report of Christie's commission. A funded ratio of 80 percent is considered financially healthy.

A longer payment schedule would increase the pension system's unfunded liability but would allow the state to live within its means, given its slow economic growth, supporters said.

"We need to look at that and potentially spread this out," said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson).

But Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who said he manages pensions as part of his day job as vice president of the International Association of Ironworkers, opposes that approach.

"If you talk to Wall Street people, I don't know anyone that says that kind of smoothing is acceptable," Sweeney told reporters Thursday in Trenton. "It's too far out."

If New Jersey stretches out the period before it makes its full payments, "you don't have as much of a cushion when the next recession hits," said David Draine, a senior researcher on public-sector retirement systems for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Between 2001 and 2013, New Jersey made 38 percent of its actuarially required contributions into the pension system, a smaller percentage than any other state, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. (At 41.2 percent, Pennsylvania was second worst.)

While they plan to pass a budget that includes $1.8 billion Christie has proposed shorting from the pension system next year, Sweeney and Prieto would not specify how they would raise the money, beyond committing to a tax on income over $1 million. Christie plans to make a $1.3 billion payment.

Prieto acknowledged that this so-called millionaires' tax would not do the job by itself. "We're looking under every rock and under every cushion," he told reporters Thursday.

One person close to Democratic leadership said efforts to shore up the pension system could gain traction over the summer and perhaps materialize after November's Assembly elections.

If Democrats want to retake the governor's mansion in 2017 - Sweeney is considered a likely candidate - it may be in their interest to address the pension matter sooner rather than later.

Some labor leaders have suggested they may want to secure pension funding with a constitutional amendment. But that would require voter approval - not an easy task, analysts say, since most nongovernment workers do not receive pensions.

Prieto seemed less than enthused about the idea when asked about it Thursday. "I would have to look at it," he said. "How would you frame that?"

The state says its unfunded pension liability is $40 billion, though that figure is $83 billion under new government accounting rules that take into account the projected depletion of the funds.

Under those standards, the judicial pension fund is projected to run out by 2021, the primary fund for state employees by 2024, and the teachers' fund by 2027, according to a report from the pension commission formed by Christie. Those projections are based on an average state payment over time, which the commission said is skewed by past funding shortfalls.

New Jersey's pension troubles are unlikely to dog Christie on the presidential campaign trail, "unless he starts to get some traction," said Dave Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire.

At home, workers say they are not letting up. "What are the real little old ladies going to do when the pension ends in 2027?" Linda Behm, 70, a retired West Deptford teacher said Thursday at the Statehouse. "What is the state going to do with all these people?"