Lobbyists Earn Public Pensions Despite Reforms
Two years after GOP Gov. Chris Christie signed a law requiring public workers to contribute significantly more toward their benefits, 151 lobbyists and insurers remain in the state pension system, their pensions and lifetime health care being subsidized by state taxpayers.
The employees are from six groups that either do business with the government, like the New Jersey League of Municipalities, or insure government entities, like the New Jersey School Boards Association, according to the Treasury Department, which oversees the pensions division. Despite several legislative attempts to wean nongovernment employees from the Public Employee Pension System, agreement has been elusive and the effort has stalled.
"Public pensions are for retired public employees who worked hard to serve the taxpayers of New Jersey," said Assemblyman Parker Space, a northwest Jersey Republican who is co-sponsoring the most recent attempt to shed the outsiders from the state retirement system. "It's outrageous to think that already overburdened residents are being asked to foot the retirement bills of private-sector lobbyists."
Space and two other Republicans, Sen. Steve Oroho and Assemblywoman Alison Little McHose, asked again this week that their bill be heard following a report by The Associated Press showing that lobbyists and insurers in 20 states, including New Jersey, are enrolled in the state pension and health care systems.
The AP review found hundreds of lobbyists and staffers getting the perk because they represent associations of counties, cities and school boards. Legislatures granted them access decades ago on the premise that they serve governments and the public. Their employers pay the same rate as public employers. Some of the workers are earning private-sector salaries on which their public pensions will be based.
The Republicans' proposal would eliminate eligibility in New Jersey's system for nongovernment employees who have less than 10 years of service and are not yet vested. It also would keep public employees from earning services credits while they are on leave for union activities.
It's identical to a proposal Christie supported in 2011, along with a law he signed shoring up a severely underfunded retirement system by requiring all public workers to contribute a greater percentage of their salaries toward their pensions, basing employee health care costs on income, with the highest-paid workers paying the most, and eliminating cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.
The bill that reached the governor's desk early last year eliminated new employees of the six groups from enrolling in the state pension system but grandfathered in those already on the job. The Democrat-championed proposal did not penalize workers for engaging in union activities.
Christie vetoed it.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, has reintroduced the legislation, but it hasn't advanced. Nor has the Republicans' bill.
Meanwhile, Christie, who is running for re-election in November, issued an executive order this month creating a Pension Fraud and Abuse Unit. Among its orders is to look at "claims of improper participation in the retirement systems."
"This is a serious and significant new step to protect the integrity of the system and guard every taxpayer dollar and employee contribution from fraud and abuse," Christie said.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)