New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has expanded his ambitious reform agenda to include an overhaul of public employee pensions and health benefits. The governor has correctly noted that the current compensation model is fiscally unsustainable. The Mercatus Center finds that employing private sector accounting methods shows an unfunded pension liability of nearly $173 billion, and that doesn't even take into account the state's underestimated $67 billion in unfunded benefits. Gov. Christie's agenda is a positive step forward for New Jersey in terms of policy, and its popularity among the public is also a positive sign for the rest of the country politically.
On the policy front, the governor's plan would begin to erode the government's unfunded pension liability by requiring most public employees to contribute more to their pensions, increasing the retirement age, rolling back some of a silly 9 percent compensation boost from the beginning of the decade, and suspending cost of living increases. With respect to health benefits, the key provision in Christie's proposal would force government employees to pay more toward their health care, from just 8 percent to a more sane 30 percent. By comparison, federal government employees pay 34 percent of the cost of their health benefits. While we don't see the necessary shift from defined benefit to defined contribution pension plans here, all of these things are positive proposals that move the Garden State in the right direction.
What is particularly exciting for the rest of the country, though, is that voters like this stuff, and like the guy proposing it. Last month, a Quinnipiac poll found Gov. Christie more popular then President Obama in blue New Jersey, with an approve/disapprove rating at 51/39 to the president's 47/47. More telling is a Monmouth University poll from last week that shows the public largely agrees with the governor's approach to reforming government employee compensation. 62 percent of registered voters say there is no need for higher benefits for public employees. 46 percent (up from 39 percent in 2008) believe pension benefits for existing employees should be cut. And 78 percent believe public employees should a greater share of their health care premiums than the current 8 percent.
This is good news for conservatives. While we have always known that reforms such as these are correct from a policy perspective, we had to deal with weak-kneed elected officials who thought them too politically difficult. Through the public support of Gov. Christie's agenda, we see that the days of public sector unions using effective scare tactics to scuttle meaningful reforms are ending. There is simply no excuse for the wave of incoming Republican governors to ignore this issue.
Whenever they start having second thoughts, a quick perusal of the governor's YouTube page should steel their spines: