As reported by NJ.com, in a significant blow to Governor Chris Christie, a judge ruled today that the Governor broke a law he signed by cutting $1.57 billion from a pension payment this year, and must now work with state lawmakers to restore the money. The decision could blow a massive hole in the current state budget, sending the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled State Legislature scrambling to come up with funds by June 30, when the fiscal year ends. The ruling comes as Christie, a potential 2016 presidential hopeful, prepares to deliver his sixth budget proposal today for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson sides with a group of public worker unions that sued to stop Christie from slashing an annual payment to New Jersey’s retirement fund for hundreds of thousands of government workers. The governor made the cut to fill a gaping hole in the budget after his administration’s revenue projections fell far short. The unions-which include teachers, police officers, state troopers, firefighters, and office workers-argued that Christie’s reductions violated a 2011 law he signed to put the pension system back on solid financial ground. Under that overhaul, the State promised to make increased annual payments to the fund after years of governors short-changing it, and in exchange workers have paid more for their pension and health benefits.
Christie touted the law-which he worked on with Democratic lawmakers-as a bipartisan achievement, and the move brought him national attention. Jacobson ruled that the governor’s cuts “substantially impaired” the contractual right to payments that were guaranteed to employees as part of the deal. “The Court is unwilling to rely on what has now become a succession of empty promises,” she wrote in the 130 page decision. “In short, the Court cannot allow the State to ‘simply walk away from its financial obligations,’ especially when those obligations were the State’s own creation,” she added.
Union leaders applauded the ruling. “It gives me hope that people who worked all their lives providing services to the public-that’s how they made their living-that they will be able to retire, and they will get their pensions,” said Hetty Rosenstein, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Communication Workers of America. Charles Wowkanech, president of the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, said the union was “elated.” “By refusing to make the required payments, the governor has exacerbated the chronic underfunding of the entire retirement system to the point of crisis,” he said in a statement.
The unions’ lawsuits aimed to reverse Christie’s moves to cut two years of pension payments to balance the budget. But last June, days before the previous fiscal year was set to end, Jacobson ruled that Christie could cut that year’s payment from $1.58 billion to $696 million because the revenue shortfall had created a fiscal emergency. In January, attorneys for the State argued that Christie could not be forced to make a full pension payment this year because the 2011 law was unconstitutional. Jacobson said today that Christie’s position is “unusual” because it claims the “legislative contractual guarantee, which embodied significant reforms for which he took substantial credit with great national fanfare, violates the New Jersey constitution.” The judge also ruled the State must reimburse the unions for legal costs.