A recent lower court decision in the state of Rhode Island decided initially in favor of government worker retirees and indicated that the state cannot freeze government pensions. What sets this decision apart from similar cases is that it actually favors unions whereas other states, including New Jersey, have been at loggerheads with them. The word union in New Jersey has become an uglier word than Snookie, courtesy of Gov. Christie.
Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter on Tuesday allowed eight public-worker unions to proceed in their lawsuit, which seeks to block recent pension reductions. The Judge emphasized the ruling did not represent a victory on the merits of the wider case, but was only a motion to allow the lawsuit to proceed, saying the pension changes in question did constitute a substantial impairing of the “contractual relationship” between the pension system itself and the participating employee.
New Jersey Governor (when he’s not off doing quid pro quos elsewhere) Chris Christie has devoted his administration to doing everything possible to weaken unions. Christie claims massive budget cuts and pension reforms, all in the name of fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice during hard economic times, but then he doesn’t seem to have any problems protecting his millionaire campaign backers by vetoing a millionaire's tax. Nor did he seem to be interested in ‘tightening the belt’ when he took a helicopter joyride and, as a justice report pointed out, didn’t mind spending tons of taxpayer money on meals and lodging during his time as U.S. Attorney.
Stephen Pincus, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents retirees in four states, but not New Jersey, said the New Jersey unions are following an unusual path in federal court.
“Nearly all cases involving pension funds involve state courts,” Pincus said.
Pincus invoked the 11th amendment of the Constitution, which evidently limits the amount of federal judicial powers in matters involving states.
Pincus went on to say that the Rhode Island decision “shows legislators out there that (pension reforms are) not a slam dunk.”
A major point of contention in the Jersey negotiations has been the cost-of-living freeze , which passed despite widespread protests. It seems the freeze in annual increases is expected to account for two-thirds of the projected $122 billion in savings in pension payments from state and local governments during the next 30 years.
Perhaps the unions of New Jersey might fair better by following the same path as Rhode Island and leave it up to the state courts.
Michael Hayne is a comedian/VO artist/Columnist extraordinaire, who co-wrote an award-nominated comedy, wrote for NY Times Laugh Lines, guest-blogged for Joe Biden, and writes a column for MSNBC.com affiliated Cagle. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and his political comedy show.