Now the size of the pension disaster is coming into view. Officially, the state’s unfunded pension liabilities amount to $54 billion, but the state optimistically assumes average investment returns of 8.5% per year. Independent estimates put the shortfall closer to $175 billion. On top of that are the separate unfunded liabilities for retiree health benefits, which the state hopefully estimates at another $67 billion.
“Pension and benefit reform is going to happen,” Mr. Christie said this week in a visit to the Journal’s editorial board. It has to happen, not just to repair the state’s general fiscal health, but also to enable Mr. Christie’s signature reform of 2010. The legislature passed his cap limiting local property tax collections to increases of no more than 2%. But localities can break the cap in order to pay pensions and benefits, so if the governor can’t fix the pension system, he can’t deliver the property tax relief voters are expecting.
In fact, he only agreed with the Democrats who run the legislature to allow exceptions to the cap on the condition that they come back this year and reform pensions and benefits. “They made a deal with me and I’m going to hold them to that deal,” says Mr. Christie.
He may succeed. He’s already succeeded in re-framing the debate, as even Democrats are talking the language of reform. As State Senate President Stephen Sweeney tells me, “We have a system that can’t be sustained any more.” He adds that he will draft a bill this month and plans for a vote in February. But will Mr. Sweeney and his colleagues back the substance of reform or just the rhetoric?