In today's paper I took a closer look at some of the big statistics that Gov. Christie uses to justify his plan to end the practice of paying retiring public employees for unused sick days. By phone, by email and by comments, I saw a strong reaction to the article, with many readers saying that it's irrelevant if Christie's numbers aren't exact because the practice is inherently corrupt and must end regardless. Others said they are glad we're fact-checking politicians' arguments.
Christie himself also chimed in. His office sent out an email this morning reiterating that they are using conservative estimates on the cost of accrued sick-time for taxpayers.
And after I wrote this on Twitter this morning -- "Not all in Jersey cash in unlimited sick days. More than 1/4 of towns don't do it & 28% of skul districts have low caps" -- the governor (or one of his aides) tweeted back: "That means 75 percent of towns and 72% of school bds pay 4 not being sick! We need to band this practice! Support my zero means zero plan"
Here's the story:
To the tax-weary audiences at Gov. Christie's town halls, it is a gasp-inducing concept: public workers cashing in unused sick days for lump-sum payments so large that towns must take out bonds to cover them.
The Republican governor has made ending the practice his key goal in recent months, repeatedly railing against the perk at public forums. He has garnered the support of 234 mayors from both parties and won over crowds with tales of workers who allegedly traded in their accrued time to buy boats.
But the issue is not as black-and-white as Christie makes it sound, and the dollar figures he drops to make his case are based on estimates, worst-case scenarios, and old data.
Nearly a quarter of New Jersey's 566 municipalities do not have employees eligible to collect sick-leave payouts, according to the state's own list. And many towns and a few school districts have eliminated the perk or do not have it in their collective-bargaining agreements.
On the stump, Christie tells taxpayers that they would be on the hook for $3.25 billion if Democrats in the Legislature defy him and instead cap sick payouts for current workers at $7,500.
Yet that figure - $7,500 for each of the more than 400,000 current state and local employees - assumes that all workers are old enough (at least 55) and will be employed long enough (up to 30 years) to become eligible, based on a review of union agreements. It requires that they have stayed healthy and accumulated the maximum sick time.
And it posits that every collective-bargaining contract allows a $7,500 payout. Many local governments forbid cashing in the time, and some that do have caps lower than $7,500. For example, 28 percent of school districts cap payouts below $7,500, according to the New Jersey Education Association teachers union. Others have an aggregate cap on what will be paid in a given year.
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