A constitutional amendment guaranteeing quarterly state payments to the $71.5 billion New Jersey Pension Fund, Trenton, will not appear on the November ballot thanks to a political battle that had little to do with pension benefits.
State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney prevented the measure from being considered by fellow senators on Monday, the deadline for approving a measure so it could be placed on the November ballot.
On the surface, the amendment's passage — requiring a majority of votes in both houses of the Legislature — seemed likely. The Democratic-controlled Assembly approved the proposal in June. Mr. Sweeney was the author of the Senate version, and there was sufficient support in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Also, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who bitterly opposed the idea, is prohibited by law from vetoing constitutional amendment legislation.
However, the proposal was caught in a dispute between the Legislature and the governor over financing the State Transportation Trust Fund, whose appropriations expired June 30. The fund finances road and mass transit projects.
Democratic legislators wanted to raise the state gas tax to replenish the transportation fund; GOP legislators and Mr. Christie wanted tax cuts to offset the higher gas taxes.
Because Mr. Christie can veto spending bills, Mr. Sweeney wanted to make sure he had veto-proof margins in both houses for any gas-tax and tax-cut package before allowing a vote on the constitutional amendment. He couldn't achieve that goal, so the transportation fund financing remains unresolved and the pension proposal is dead for this year.
“With a resolution to the Transportation Trust Fund crisis — and a full accounting of how much future tax cuts will cost — it would have been too easy for opponents to argue that the state could not afford to pass the pension amendment,” Mr. Sweeney said in a statement Monday. “The pension amendment would have been doomed to defeat, and that would have given carte blanche to current and future governors to slash pension payments."
Because the Assembly has approved the measure, Mr. Sweeney said the Senate could vote on the proposal any time during the current legislative session that ends in January to place the amendment on the November 2017 ballot. “If the proposed amendment was voted down this November we would have to wait at least three years to put it on the ballot again, according to the New Jersey Constitution,” he said.