Would New Jerseyans rather have a governor who sucks up to special interests or a governor with courage and integrity? Our choices at the ballot box rarely split into such neat dichotomies but, if today’s news is any indication, we may have it easy in November 2017.
Today Phil Murphy, gubernatorial hopeful, released a statement that gives new heft to the concept of political pander. Parroting NJEA talking points and dissenting from the State Board of Education’s decision earlier today, he promised he would eliminate new PARCC assessments and end all high school diploma qualifying tests. Instead, he promised, N.J. would create “new and innovative tests,” “end student and teacher stress,” and save the state money because “computer-based tests have been proven to cost a fraction of PARCC.” Murphy failed to point out that designing new tests would cost mega-bucks, that meaningful tests would have to be aligned with N.J. course content standards — just like PARCC — and that PARCC is, in fact, a “computer-based test” that cost less than N.J.’s old and much-maligned ASK and HSPA tests.
Also today, Senate President Steve Sweeney another likely gubernatorial candidate, held a press conference in front of the Statehouse regarding the status of a proposed constitutional amendment, yet to be passed by the Senate, that would require the state to pay billions of dollars into the government worker pension fund. According to Sweeney, NJEA leaders told Democratic Party chairpeople that it would refuse to “release campaign cash until next spring as a cudgel” to force Senate approval. In addition, his office received a “direct threat” from the head of the Fraternal Order of Police.
From the Star-Ledger:
“These unions are no longer engaging in public advocacy issues focused on education of our children,” Sweeney said. “Instead they have made specific threats regarding specific legislative actions that benefit the pocketbooks of its members. These unions have made it clear that unless they get their way, they will deliver on their threats. Using political and financial threats to coerce public officials is an assault on the integrity of the legislative process and honest government. And it could be illegal.”
(Wonky background: in N.J. pension payments are determined on a year-to-year basis as part of the annual budget, based on various factors like prospective investment earnings. They’re legislative, not constitutional. The amendment would mandate quarterly payments of specific amounts. NJEA and two other public unions sued the state last year for breach of contract in order to force full payments to the $79 billion Pension Fund but Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson dismissed the case. The proposed amendment is a way to bypass the ruling and make payments a constitutional matter.)
It would be easy for Sweeney to bow to union extortion and push through a vote on a constitutional amendment that could bankrupt the state (not that it would take much) and dramatically reduce its ability to fairly fund, say, public schools or bridge and road repair. Such an action on Sweeney’s part would win him union accolades but it would be irresponsible. The amendment was predicated on the understanding that the state would increase gas taxes by 23 cents. But now Christie, brown-nosing the right wing of the GOP much like Murphy is brown-nosing NJEA, says he won’t approve the gas tax without other tax cuts.
NJEA’s front office issued this: “NJEA has simply informed legislators and party officials that we are withholding support that we are under no obligation to give.”
That’s fair. It’s the job of union leaders to divvy up their bucks among favored candidates. And union members have every right to feel betrayed by N.J.’s fiscal distress and its inability to fully fund pension payments. That’s why we need pension reform — beyond the baby steps we took in 2011 — which NJEA flatly rejects.
Meanwhile, elections seem to be evolving into no-brainers. Murphy’s no Trump but the choice between a spineless groveler and a conscientious leader will be a breeze at the ballot box.