Christie questioned on future of public pensions

Gov. Chris Christie talks about pension reform at "Town Meeting" at the Bay View Park on Long Beach Island Boulevard in Long Beach Township, N.J. Tuesday July 22, 2014. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP, N.J. - As Gov. Christie descended on the Shore on Tuesday to make his case for cuts to public worker pensions, Larry Parker had a message for him.

"We're not here to talk about getting something for nothing," Parker, a 73-year-old retired police chief, told Christie at a park on Long Beach Island, where the governor hosted a town-hall-style meeting. "I don't think any of us want to rob the New Jersey taxpayers. We are taxpayers."

Parker, a former police chief in Stafford Township, said he worried for his financial security: "Where does a 73-year-old man go and find a job?" He asked Christie to take the issue seriously because "we took our jobs seriously."

Loud applause went up from the fringes of the crowd, where about 200 police officers, firefighters, and public workers wearing union T-shirts had spent most of the meeting standing quietly.

Despite their sizable presence - spurred, one union official said, by Christie's decision to call for changes to their pensions near a playground they helped build - union members did not confront the governor over his plans.

It would be difficult to do so, they noted, when Christie has not presented any specific proposals. "That's what we came here to try to get out," said Roger Grover, pension fund administrator for a Teamsters local representing public workers in Long Beach Township. "Now he says it's going to be later on."

Christie, who for months has been calling for unspecified changes to the pension system, continued his campaign Tuesday, though he dubbed it with a new name - "No Pain, No Gain" - and framed the push as part of a summer tour at the Shore. He said he expected to announce a proposal at the end of summer.

While "a whole range of options" is under consideration, Christie said, "the bottom line is, it will be a reduction in benefits. There's no other way to do this."

The Republican governor, who says the system's costs are unsustainable, cut scheduled payments into the system this year to fill a revenue shortfall. The move reversed course on a landmark pension deal Christie reached with Democrats during his first term, when public workers began paying more toward their pensions in exchange for the state's committing to make escalating payments.

Christie said Tuesday that he had invited legislators to propose their own changes to the system, but "the crickets are still being heard."

Democrats, who proposed filling the revenue shortfall in part by raising taxes on the state's highest earners, have said that if Christie made the full payments, the system would be stable.

"We feel that this was his deal in 2011," said Eddie Donnelly, president of the state Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association. "He should be talking about how it failed."

Donnelly said it was "a great offense" to the union that Christie held Tuesday's event by a playground firefighters built in honor of a teacher killed during the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shootings.

On Monday in Connecticut, more than 150 people - including some from Newtown, where the shooting occurred - protested Christie's recent veto of a bill that would have reduced New Jersey's gun magazine capacity limit.

During the Shore meeting, Christie told Parker, the retired chief, that "no one's taking your pension away," though he also said that bankruptcy to the system was a "risk."

But "what we're talking about is where we go from here," Christie said.

As he outlined the system's history - it was underfunded for years before Christie's tenure, though the unfunded liability has deepened because of his recent cuts - Christie said his plan would address the system "on a going-forward basis," with changes applied to current employees.

Still unclear, however, is where that line will be drawn, Christie said. He suggested that for an employee who has worked for 10 years and is in his 30s or early 40s, there would still be "plenty of time to adjust to a new reality."

He painted the pension system as outdated, noting that the average life expectancy for a man is now 79, and that workers could potentially collect pensions for longer than they were employed. "We're talking about a different era," Christie said.

Christie criticized President Obama when asked his stance on the influx of unaccompanied children trying to cross into the United States, saying "the president has done an awful job . . . in securing our border."

Obama's policies have "sent the wrong signal," allowing people "to believe they could come here under any circumstances . . . and be able to stay here," Christie said.

The state would have little say if the federal government sent children to federal facilities in New Jersey, or if charitable organizations took in children, Christie said. He expressed concern over possible repercussions, including whether the federal government would enforce the attendance of children at immigration hearings.

"Folks have to comply with the law. And the president doesn't seem interested in making sure that that happens at the moment," Christie said.

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