For the second consecutive year, New Jersey towns could skip half of their required pension payments under a bill proposed by Sen. Sandra Cunningham, a Hudson County Democrat.
The deferred contributions would have to be paid back to the state's beleaguered pension system over 15 years. The plan would provide short-term savings, but increase the fund's long-range deficit and add to future municipal-budget costs.
The idea would be to give towns and counties some immediate budget relief, alleviating the pressure on them to cut services or hike taxes as state and local governments cope with depressed revenues and falling levels of aid. Gov. Corzine recently held back $20.6 million in aid to towns as state revenues fell below projections, adding to the strain on municipal finances.
"There are some municipalities that would need this," said William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. Dressel said Jersey City, which is in Cunningham's district, had specifically sought the relief, and he thinks other towns also would want the option.
The pension deferrals proposed would delay contributions to funds intended to pay retirement benefits promised to municipal workers.
Critics say the move could further weaken the state's already wobbly pension system and add pressure to increase property taxes in later years.
The state's seven pension funds had a $34.4 billion deficit as of June 30, 2008, the last date evaluated by actuaries. That's more than the annual state budget.
The shortfall has undoubtedly grown since then, because towns were allowed to defer half of their required pension payments in the previous budget, and Corzine provided only a small fraction - less than 10 percent - of what the state owed in the current spending plan.
"If you continue not to make the payments, [the pension system is] going to go bankrupt," said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat. The state's substantial pension deficit "only gets larger each year when you don't make the payment, and someone somewhere has to say 'stop,' " he said.
A total of 174 towns, roughly one in three, took advantage of the pension deferral last fiscal year, saving $220 million in the short term but adding those costs onto future budgets, according to the Department of Community Affairs.
In a recent study on states in fiscal peril, the Pew Center on the States cited New Jersey's pension shortfall as a central piece of the state's financial problems.
Sweeney noted that workers, including municipal employees and police, have continued to contribute portions of their paychecks to the pension system while the state government has shortchanged it.
As a candidate, Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie criticized the pension deferral that Corzine proposed in his last budget.
Cunningham, a member of Christie's transition team, did not return a phone call seeking comment on her bill.
Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), chair of the Budget Committee, said that she had already heard from several mayors calling for another round of pension relief, and that the pressure for such a move had increased since Corzine put a hold on state aid.
But she said her caucus had not yet discussed the bill to decide if or when it would be heard.