Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chris Christie, Culture Warrior

It's clear -- the Wall Street Journal hearts Chris Christie. Last week, a lead editorial crowed that "New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has become the national pacesetter in state fiscal reform. . ." The Governor got his picture in the Wall Street Journal two times in one day within the past two weeks, once in connection with a lawsuit in Minnesota that had nothing to do with New Jersey (I'm sure Tim Pawlenty was none too pleased).

The focus of this love-fest is the Governor's on-going war against public employee unions, the latest salvo of which was launched a few weeks ago. The Governor unveiled a plan to reform public employee pensions by rolling back a 9% increase negotiated in 2001, eliminate cost of living adjustments for both current and future retirees, raise public employee contributions to retirement plans, make it harder to get disability benefits and lower the expected return on pension benefits from 8.25% annually to 7.5%. State workers would pay 30% of health costs, up from about 8% now, and retirees would face higher co-pays.

All of this moves State public employee health and retirement benefits closer to a private industry model, which the Wall Street Journal says is the right way to go. In fact, the Journal thinks the Governor does not go far enough, and should replace government pensions with 401(k) plans.

In an earlier op-ed, Steve Malanga of The Manhattan Institute discussed Governor Christie’s successful election campaign and the role of the NJEA. By way of reminder, the Manhattan Institute is the right-leaning think tank that issued a study showing that New Jersey’s Millionaire’s Tax caused wealthy citizens to flee the State. According to Malanga, the NJEA polled its own membership and found its members supported John Corzine by only a slight majority. Malanga posits that Christie has positioned himself on the right sife of a national anti-union culture war that has Republicans and Democrats alike distancing themselves from public employee unions.

Writes Malanga:

"Still, what we are seeing this year may mark a historic shift in American politics. If candidates around the country can repeat Mr. Christie’s strategy of winning office by taking on public unions, we could be witnessing a change akin to what happened in the late 1970s, when tax revolts in a handful of states created a nationwide momentum that eventually reflected Ronald Reagan.

The early 21st century version of tax rebellion is a head-on collision between over-burdened taxpayers and public sector unions. The many signs of union weakness suggest that after decades of expanding power, government-worker unions have met their match."

And interestingly, an article on a Minnesota court case which ran the same day as Malanga's op-ed featured a photograph of Chris Christie. The article discussed a law suit questioning whether or not Minnesota can curtail pension benefits for current retirees from state jobs. The article cited a February report from the Pew Center on the States estimates that, in the aggregate, the states face a trillion dollar gap between the pension, health care and other retirement benefits owed to public employees and the money states have set aside to pay for them. But since New Jersey is one of those states considering cuts to pension benefits for retired government workers, the outcome of the Minnesota case may impact plans in New Jersey and other states, so of course the only picture would be of Chris Christie.

So it would seem that the Wall Street Journal, now a part the Rupert Murdoch/ Fox News/ right wing echo chamber, is selling us a culture war which pits overburdened taxpayers against teachers, judges, police officer, firefighters and the like. The middle class against the middle class. And the solution is to turn state pensions over to Wall Street.

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