After eight years of Chris Christie, New Jersey voters can be forgiven for wanting to elect the complete opposite: a nice guy, who promises things rather than threatens them. But before Garden Staters pick Democrat Phil Murphy on Nov. 7, they should consider that the original version of Murphy — Jon Corzine — was how people got desperate enough to vote for Christie in the first place.
The polls show Murphy with a big lead over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, his Republican opponent. Before the first debate last Tuesday, Murphy was ahead by 14 points. But at the debate, Guadagno demonstrated she isn’t a Christie clone — and just as important, she showed herself to be the only candidate who lives anywhere near reality.
Which is: New Jersey cannot pay its pensions. It cannot pay them even when the economy is good — as it is now (sort of) with tax revenues up 4 percent in the past year.
New Jersey owes $93.1 billion in unfunded-pension promises, up from less than $4.4 billion (after inflation) in 2008. This exceeds New Jersey’s $42.7 billion in bonds — money it owes to investors, not retirees.
Christie has many flaws, but over eight years, he has made bigger pension payments than any governor before him. Despite this $8.8 billion — including $2.5 billion this year — costs have outraced him.
Last year, state pension funds took in nearly $12 billion in contributions. But they paid $17.5 billion in benefits.
Guadagno realizes this. “We would need $15 billion” — not $2.5 billion — “out of a $34 billion [annual state] budget” to shore up pensions, she said. “We know that’s just not realistic. We are hiring 21-year-old kids to teach in our schools and promising them a pension that we know they will not have.
This is true, and immoral. Guadagno promises to honor pension commitments to “current retirees.” For everyone else, she has some sound ideas.
She proposes transferring the risk of the police and fire pensions to workers themselves. That is, having the state and local governments make fixed contributions, with unions bearing the risk for market downturns or too-young retirement agents.
She also proposes to move civilian public workers into 401(k)-style pension funds.
This is brave — braver than what Christie ever did, despite all the bluster. And Guadagno proposes this without screaming at teachers.
It’s OK to propose an alternative solution. But Murphy doesn’t do that. Instead, he said repeatedly, “We will fully fund our pension obligations, and we’ll get there as fast as we can. We have a credible plan.”
Guadagno didn’t have to voice skepticism. A debate moderator told the audience that it’s “obviously impossible” to pay the pensions, and said of Murphy’s plan, “I still haven’t heard how.”
Murphy doesn’t just want to maintain the impossible. He wants to make things even more impossible. New Jersey has benefited during the Christie regime from a 2 percent cap on annual raises for police and firefighters, which keeps property taxes from rising even higher.
Murphy won’t say whether he’d keep the cap. After he hemmed and hawed, Guadagno said, “I would extend the . . . cap because it saves the taxpayers billions of dollars.”
Another difference: Murphy wants to “make millionaires . . . pay their fair share,” he says on his Web site. Here, too, he’s short on details. But it likely means a hike in the nearly 9 percent top income-tax rate, if past proposals are a guide.
For this to succeed, New Jersey will have to build a Trump-style wall to keep the rich in.
On some questions, neither candidate has an answer. Both want to build the Gateway tunnel under the Hudson to New York — but neither has said how Jersey will pay. And it’s hard to see how Guadagno’s going to make good on her central campaign pledge: cutting property taxes.
Still, Guadagno doesn’t pretend that gimmicks will fix New Jersey. Murphy does: He wants to start a “public bank” to invest the state’s tax revenues in infrastructure and student loans.
Again, this puts him right back where he started: If New Jersey had billions of dollars in tax revenue sitting around, it wouldn’t be in this mess.
And it’s reminiscent of the gimmicks Corzine tried during his own governorship, like selling off the turnpike to pay off debt.
Christie has treated New Jersey voters, and everyone else, with contempt. But in this race, only one candidate is showing respect for the voters — by (mostly) telling the truth.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post