VOORHEES — Assemblyman Troy Singleton is interested in reviving 2014 legislation requiring a portion of public employee pension contributions to be used to pay down the system's unfunded liabilities rather than as an offset for state and local governments' employer contributions.
Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, believes the subtle change has the potential to quickly shave off hundreds of millions of dollars from the state's mounting pension liability, which is calculated to be between $40 billion and $90 billion, depending on accounting methods.
But getting the measure signed into law may prove difficult, as Gov. Chris Christie already vetoed it in 2014.
Singleton, who had sponsored the legislation with three fellow Democrats, said he planned to reintroduce the measure this session and try to return it to the governor before the new fiscal year begins.
"We're going to bring it back up during the budget process," Singleton said Wednesday at a Southern New Jersey Chamber of Commerce breakfast at The Mansion in Voorhees, where the three-term legislator was the featured speaker.
The legislation aims to change the way the state calculates the employer contributions recommended for state and local governments to make toward the pension systems. It specifies that the larger employee pension contributions mandated by the 2011 pension and benefits reform law be deposited directly into the systems rather than used as an offset for calculating how much state and local governments should pay.
The state followed this practice during the 2013 fiscal year, but then opted to revert to using the employee contributions as an offset beginning July 2013.
The change in actuarial methodology permitted the state to shave off millions from its required pension payments, but added to the growing pension liability.
Had the state continued to apply the larger employee contributions directly toward the pension, it would have reduced the liability by $454 million, according to an analysis written by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
The legislation was approved by the Democratic majorities in the Assembly and Senate in June 2014, but Christie vetoed it in September, arguing in his message that it "reflected a piecemeal approach to reform."
Christie's veto message urged lawmakers to await the findings and recommendations of a special study commission he appointed to seek ways for the state to solve its pension woes.
Among the recommendations released by the commission last year were for the state to freeze the existing pension and create a 401(k)-like system and new health care benefits. The savings from the health care plans would be used to pay down the unfunded pension liabilities over time.
Democratic lawmakers have refused to take up the proposal and proposed asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would mandate the state make prescribed quarterly pension payments.
Christie and members of his study commission have blasted the idea, arguing that it would eventually require massive tax increases or program cuts for the state to afford the mandated payments.
Singleton said the previously vetoed legislation was a simpler way of reducing the pension liability over time.
"If he literally would have just signed 'Chris Christie' on a piece of paper, we would have had $450 million over the course of the last few years," Singleton said, adding that he was hopeful the governor might reconsider his veto if the bill is returned to his desk.
"What I'm about is trying to find solutions. I don't really care whose name is on the marquee. I don't care if it's going to bolster the political future for the governor or any other politician," he said. "My thing, I worry about the fact that I'm not going to be here someday and our children are going to have to pick up this (pension) tab. And if we don't get out in front of it in a realistic way, then they're going to have an even bigger problem moving forward."
Singleton, who was recently named chairman of the Assembly State and Local Government Committee, also told business leaders Wednesday that finding ways to reduce the state's notoriously high property taxes would be a major focus for the committee.
He cited legislation his committee advanced last week to return $331 million in funds collected in lieu of property taxes from utilities and energy companies to municipalities as property tax relief.
"We're going to put that proposal on the governor's desk," Singleton said. "There is no bigger priority in the state for residents than to reduce property taxes."
He also said he remains committed to supporting education reform initiatives, claiming that not all New Jersey students are being adequately prepared for available jobs.
"I have manufacturers tell me all the time: 'I have jobs and would love to hire a kid from Willingboro or Cherry Hill,' but they can't because they don't have the skill sets they need," Singleton said.