From pension promises to electoral consequences
This article was supposed to be about something else. It was supposed to be about your role in helping to pass a constitutional amendment that would require the state to make quarterly pension payments and to commit to a responsible funding schedule that would save every taxpayer in the state money over the long term.
Instead, it’s about the failed leadership of Senate President Steve Sweeney.
That’s why this article is also about your role in a new campaign to change the political leadership of this state.
And, finally, it’s still about that constitutional amendment.
“Because when you tell the truth, you don’t have to worry about trying to figure out what you said. It comes back to you when people lie.”
In the spring and summer of 2015, as the state hammered out the Fiscal Year 2016 budget, NJEA kept a close eye on which legislators supported a budget that provided the statutorily required level of funding for the pension systems and which did not. That fall, after an extensive screening process, the NJEA Political Action Committee (PAC) refused to endorse any candidate who did not support that pension funding. The association was sending a clear message that this was a top-tier issue for its members.
NJEA endorsed candidates who supported pension funding and put considerable resources behind those candidates. Members—active, retired, and preservice—wore out the soles of their shoes walking from neighborhood to neighborhood knocking on doors on behalf of those candidates. They made thousands of phone calls from county education association offices and from the offices of the endorsed candidates.
After that election, mindful of a state Supreme Court ruling that the state could not be compelled to make statutorily required payments in the pension system, NJEA worked with other unions and ballot initiative experts to craft a proposed constitutional amendment that would require the state to pay its share. As written, the amendment would require quarterly payments into the pension system to meet the state’s full actuarially required contribution. The amendment would permit the state to ramp up to those full payments over the next five years.
Getting that amendment on the November 2016 ballot for voter approval would not require cooperation from the governor, but it would require action in the Legislature. To place a proposed constitutional amendment on the general election ballot in New Jersey requires an affirmative vote by a simple majority in the Senate and a simple majority in the Assembly in two separate Legislative sessions. It could be done in a single session as long as both houses pass it by a two-thirds majority, but there was not enough Republican support to secure that large an affirmative vote.
By the end of the last legislative session on Jan. 11, 2016, both the Senate and the Assembly passed the amendment resolution by the required simple majority. In February, at NJEA’s annual Legislative and Political Action Conference, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Sweeney promised that the second vote would take place by June.
Sweeney, acknowledging the presence of a camera in the conference room, said of the amendment, “It belongs in the constitution, we can do it. It doesn’t raise taxes. We have the votes. There’s no question. Yes, we’re going to do it [vote on the amendment] again. Yes, it’s going to be on the ballot.”
Later, Sweeney clarified that the votes in the Senate and the Assembly would take place before the end of June.
To emphasize his commitment to the constitutional amendment he concluded his statement by saying, “Because when you tell the truth, you don’t have to worry about trying to figure out what you said. It comes back to you when people lie.” (You can watch his statement at http://bit.ly/2b0DenJ – case sensitive.)
NJEA begins pro-amendment campaign
Reassured by firm promises from Senate and Assembly leadership, NJEA and its partners in the state’s public employee unions built a campaign to ensure a successful outcome on Nov. 8.
NJEA did not want to leave messaging to chance and conducted polling of New Jersey residents to ascertain initial support for the amendment and to test the most effective messages. While the strategy envisioned a strong public campaign in the fall, NJEA began airing a series of commercials with positive messages about active, retired and education support professional members. Later ads would reintroduce these members with clear pro-amendment messages.
NJEA Pension Fellows build strong member connection
For the spring and summer, NJEA focused on educating members about the importance of the constitutional amendment. Key to that campaign were NJEA’s Pension Fellows.
NJEA hired and trained 300 members to work full- and part-time through the summer on the colossal task of educating over 200,000 NJEA members on the importance of the amendment and the importance of profound member engagement in it. The Pension Fellows worked to motivate member volunteers around the state and coordinate campaign-related activities such as voter registration efforts, campaign events, member-to-member phone banks, and door-to-door canvassing.
In their first three weeks, Pension Fellows made over 73,000 calls, knocked on over 1,600 doors, sent 3,300 postcards, and recruited an additional 1,700 volunteer pension activists.
Prieto keeps his promise
True to his word, Speaker Prieto posted the Assembly pension amendment resolution for its required second vote on June 27. Prieto himself handed the speaker’s gavel to Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic. He moved to the Assembly floor to engage in debate over the amendment and speak in favor of its passage.
“All of us have to be mindful of what past legislatures and past administrations have neglected to do,” Prieto said. “We have to start doing the right thing by making the pension whole in a way that is fiscally sound so that we are taking care of all our obligations—and this is a pivotal one—for the hardworking people of the state of New Jersey.”
Along party lines, the Assembly voted 50-25-2 to pass ACR-109.
All that remained for the amendment to make its way to the Nov. 8 ballot was for Senate President Sweeney to post, and for state senators to pass, the identical resolution, SCR-2.
Sweeney breaks his promise
Despite assuring members that he would post SCR-2 for a Senate vote, June 30 passed without that vote. Sweeney blamed the lack of resolution on how to replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). Sweeney said that the TTF plan passed in the Assembly on June 28—and supported by Gov. Chris Christie—would create too large a hole in the budget to meet the pension payments that would be required under the constitutional amendment.
The Assembly’s TTF bill would raise the gasoline tax by 23 cents and reduce the sales tax over a two-year period from 7 to 6 percent.
The Senate plan, supported by Sweeney, would also raise the gasoline tax by 23 cents, but would phase out the estate tax, raise the retirement income tax threshold, increase a tax credit for low-income filers and establish a charitable tax deduction.
Despite having set no pre-conditions on his now six-month old unfulfilled promise to post and pass the pension amendment, he continued to refuse to post it using the TTF controversy as his excuse.
If not passed by Aug. 8, the amendment would not appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
NJEA turns up the heat
On Aug. 1, NJEA organized a massive lobby day, bringing more than 300 members to Trenton to lobby senators and, in particular, Sweeney, to post the bill and vote to pass it. The large crowds lining the halls of the Statehouse led the New Jersey State Police to take the unprecedented step of removing members from the halls of the Statehouse annex. It was a curious decision since NJEA has brought at least that many members to Trenton on previous lobby days and the State Police never had an issue over having members in that part of the annex. Undaunted, NJEA members simply relocated to other highly visible locations around the building.
Members encountered Sweeney who exchanged a few words with NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer. Sweeney said that his focus was on passing the TTF agreement with a veto-proof majority, before he would consider SCR-2. When the Senate adjourned that night without passing either a TTF plan or SCR-2, Sweeney was booed by public workers, including NJEA members, who were seated in the Senate gallery.
NJEA announces it will withhold PAC contributions
As a result of members’ and leaders’ frustration with the politics-as-usual ploy of promising to live up to their responsibilities, and failing once again to do so, NJEA informed senators and county Democratic chairpersons that NJEA would no longer contribute members’ voluntary NJEA Political Action Committee (PAC) donations to candidates who did support members’ priorities.
NJEA members also moved to organize a protest outside Sweeney’s West Deptford office on Aug. 3. More than 400 members, including NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan, chanted “post the bill, pass the bill,” and “no pensions, no peace,” for more than two hours in the summer heat. They made it clear that NJEA members will not stand by while the funding failures—and elected officials’ leadership failures—that threaten their pensions go unaddressed.
“NJEA’s support for politicians is not an entitlement; it is earned.”
While members protested outside his district office, Sweeney unofficially declared war on the NJEA. During a press conference at the Statehouse, he announced that he was asking U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman and Christopher S. Porrino to investigate NJEA for withholding its PAC contributions. Porrinno’s appointment had been approved by the Senate only two days prior.
NJEA swiftly responded.
“Elected officials know that our members will not allow NJEA to support candidates who do not support their priorities,” Steinhauer said. “NJEA’s support for politicians is not an entitlement; it is earned. We have a responsibility to use our members’ voluntary political contributions to support their priorities. NJEA has simply informed legislators and party officials that we are withholding support that we are under no obligation to give.”
Sweeney doubled-down on his NJEA attacks by holding a press conference on Aug. 4, flanked by private-sector union leaders, underscoring Sweeney’s desire to create a diversion from his failure to keep his pension amendment promise by attempting to incite division between public- and private-sector labor union members.
Steinhauer refused to engage with the false conflict, stating that Sweeney’s failure to uphold his pension promise hurts every taxpayer in the state.
“Sen. Sweeney didn’t just break his promise to public employees. He also broke his promise to New Jersey voters and taxpayers,” Steinhauer said. “He promised to put an amendment on the ballot this year that would finally allow voters to take this issue out of the hands of unreliable politicians like Steve Sweeney and Chris Christie. By breaking that promise, he has raised the cost of fixing the problem. That hurts every taxpayer. Until New Jersey elects leaders with vision and integrity, the state remains in danger.”
8-8-16: Decision day for Steve Sweeney
“8-8-16! The day that Sen. Steve Sweeney will define, once and for all, his true character, his moral substance, his integrity—or it will define his failed leadership,”
On Aug. 8—the last day for Sweeney to keep his promise to post and pass SCR-2—hundreds of NJEA members gathered at the Statehouse. The protest, organized by NJEA’s Summer Fellows, sent a clear message to the New Jersey Senate: Post the bill! Pass the bill!
NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan led off the rally with a direct challenge to Sweeney to keep his promise and pass the bill.
“8-8-16! The day that Sen. Steve Sweeney will define, once and for all, his true character, his moral substance, his integrity—or it will define his failed leadership,” Blistan declared.
NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Sean M. Spiller acknowledged that Sweeney might not like some of what has been said about him this week, but that there’s an easy solution. “Show us your answer by doing two simple things: Post the bill! Pass the bill!”
Many other NJEA leaders and members spoke out as well. Hunterdon County Education Association Vice President Marie Corfield, Trenton Education Association President Naomi Johnson-Lafleur, East Orange Education Association Vice President Brian Rock and Monroe Township Education Association (Middlesex) member Pat Comey all fired up the crowd with demands that Sweeney keep his word and post the bill.
NJEA did not stand alone.
Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), stood in solidarity, reminding the crowd that we don’t just stand for our members, but for the 99 percent who demand an economic system that doesn’t give all the benefit to the 1 percent. CWA represents state and county public employees in New Jersey.
Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Mercer, also stood to speak and called on his Senate colleagues to follow the lead of the Assembly and put the amendment on the ballot.
We have more members engaged than ever before. If we take the right path forward, if we keep organizing, working and fighting, we will get the victory we all deserve.”
The NJEA Jack Bertolino Summer Leadership Conference was in full swing as the Aug. 8 deadline passed. More than 2,000 local and county association leaders, along with retired and preservice members, attend the annual conference over the course of three, three-day sessions.
“In 2017, the entire Legislature and governorship is up for election,” Steinhauer said. “If we want to be effective in that election, we must start organizing for success today.”
Steinhauer noted that at its Aug. 6 meeting, the NJEA PAC Operating Committee gave its assent for the association to make endorsements and provide support for endorsed candidates in the 2017 primary elections.
Blistan noted that despite Sweeney’s inaction and broken promises, the fight for the pension amendment continues.
“Our members have made it very clear that pension security in retirement is and should be this organization’s Number 1 priority,” Blistan said. “Now, however, rather than only casting a vote on a constitutional amendment, we need to shift our efforts to include casting our ballots for people who not only say they support our issues and priorities, but who actually keep their word.”
To that end, the NJEA Pension Fellows adjusted their phone-bank scripts. Instead of calling on members to pressure the Senate to pass SCR-2, they alerted members to the need for their involvement in the primary election process.
At the Summer Leadership Conference, Spiller reflected on how far NJEA has come in the last year.
“I’m not willing to see what happened on Aug. 8 as a defeat, because we are stronger today than we were one year ago,” Spiller said. “We have more members engaged than ever before. If we take the right path forward, if we keep organizing, working and fighting, we will get the victory we all deserve.”
This story was written by Patrick Rumaker and appears in the September issue of the NJEA Review