Frequently Asked Questions
How did we get here?
For more than two decades, New Jersey politicians in both parties have played a dangerous game with New Jersey’s pension funds, skipping required payments year after year and allowing huge liabilities to grow. As a result, New Jersey faces a pension funding crisis that will take many years to resolve. Not only that, it will take a tremendous amount of fiscal discipline, which is exactly what too many of our elected leaders have lacked.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to the pension crisis that takes the problem out of the hands of politicians. That solution lets New Jersey voters decide if they want a state that is fiscally responsible or one that faces economic ruin. By adopting a constitutional amendment requiring regular, responsible pension contributions while allowing the state to gradually return to full payments, voters can end the irresponsibility that has brought New Jersey to this point.
Why do we need to amend the constitution?
NJEA and other public sector unions have tried every other avenue to convince legislators and governors for the last 20 years to responsibly fund our pensions. We have filed or joined multiple lawsuits seeking to compel the state to meet its pension funding obligations. But, so far, the courts have been unwilling to force the state to make payments.
The Legislature also tried to ensure full funding of the pensions, passing a law in 2011 that made deep cuts to benefits and dramatically increased employees’ contributions for those benefits. In exchange, the law required the state to make full pension contributions each year, following a seven-year phase in. But after only two years, Gov. Chris Christie refused to make the required payment. When NJEA and other unions sued under the law he’d signed, his attorneys argued that it was unconstitutional. Because of a loophole in the constitution, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that it could not compel the state to obey the law.
Since the courts have refused to enforce pension funding, and the Legislature is unable to pass a law strong enough to compel an unwilling governor to act responsibly, the only avenue left is to close the loophole in the constitution.
What will the constitutional amendment do?
The amendment will finally force the state to do what Christie and the Legislature promised in 2011. It would require the state, after a phase-in period, to make its full annual required pension contribution. It would also require that contribution to be made quarterly, rather than in one lump sum at the end of each year, as currently happens. It will not increase the amount the state owes. In fact, it will decrease future payments by billions of dollars by enforcing a responsible payment schedule.
It works much like a credit card: the more you pay each month, the lower your interest payments will be. When the state pays only a small fraction of what’s due—or skips the payment altogether—it costs New Jersey taxpayers billions in unnecessary future payments.
The most important thing a constitutional amendment does is take the funding decision out of the hands of politicians. There will always be short-term reasons to skip payments, even though that does long-term harm to the pension systems and to the state. Taking politics out of the process keeps politicians from putting their short-term convenience ahead of the needs of future generations.
Isn’t a constitutional amendment too dramatic?
No. Both courts and statutes have failed to force the state to meet its funding obligations. The only solution left is a constitutional amendment to close the loophole and finally impose a constitutional requirement to fund the pension systems.
A constitutional amendment is different from a constitutional convention. An amendment addresses a single issue and does not change the rest of the constitution. A convention opens up the constitution and can lead to other harmful changes.
NJEA has opposed past attempts at constitutional conventions, but has supported past constitutional amendments, including the minimum wage amendment in 2013. This amendment, though, is the most important one we’ve ever had in New Jersey.
Will voters support the amendment?
That is up to us. Multiple polls, commissioned by NJEA as well as by independent organizations, show strong voter support for the amendment. That’s a good starting point, but there will be people and groups trying to convince voters not to support responsible pension funding.
We know how much work it will take to educate the people of New Jersey about what’s at stake. We know we will have to overcome misinformation and fear mongering. But education is what we do best, and we aren’t afraid to roll up our sleeves and get to work to secure New Jersey’s fiscal future and save our pensions in the process. We won’t rest until New Jersey voters know the truth about what’s at stake and why the constitutional amendment is the fiscally responsible solution to a stubborn political problem.
You’ll hear plenty of people talking in the months to come about what we can’t do. They will tell you why it’s too hard, or not the right time. But they won’t offer a single solution that gets New Jersey out from under its debt and sets our state up for a brighter future. And in the end, we don’t need more excuses. We need solutions. That’s what the constitutional amendment is: a solution that helps everyone in New Jersey.
When do we start?
We already have. We’ve recruited activists, begun to educate leaders and members and lobbied legislators. We’ve begun to test messages through polling and focus groups to understand what is most convincing. We are building a campaign structure that will be ready to roll out in force as the election heats up.
NJEA members will be a major part of our organizing effort. It will be up to all 200,000 of us to talk to our colleagues, friends and families about the importance of regular, responsible pension funding. We will have to knock on doors, make phone calls and make sure we get out and vote ourselves.
But it’s worth it. Our future is at stake. We have a chance to fix twenty years of bad decisions and ensure our pension system's security for years to come.