The most troubling aspect of 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie's refusal this week to make necessary contributions to his state's pension system was not the budget maneuver itself; it was that almost none of the debate surrounding the move contextualized what it was really about.
Christie depicted the maneuver as a matter of financial necessity, as if he had no other choice but to effectively use New Jersey retirees' money to balance the state's books. With New Jersey under threat of another credit downgrade, Christie was certainly dinged a bit by the political press for not better managing his state's budget. However, lost in the noise about whether the governor is a true fiscal conservative was any discussion of the two choices his administration has made -- choices that are at the root of the budget crisis.
The first choice was Christie's decision to spend enormous amounts of New Jersey taxpayer money on lavish subsidies to corporations. As the New York Times reported two years ago, "Christie has approved a record $1.57 billion in state tax breaks for dozens of New Jersey’s largest companies." As if that largess wasn't enough, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that in 2013, Christie signed legislation that "lifts limits on how much the state can give out in economic incentives to corporations and developers."
The second choice was the Christie administration's decision to invest so much of New Jersey's pension fund in high-risk, high-fee investments. As Pensions and Investments magazine just reported, New Jersey now ranks second in the nation for public pension investments in hedge funds.
In a radio interview, Christie recently bragged that this investment scheme delivered 12.9 percent returns last year. He didn’t mention that number was well below the 16 percent returns the median public pension delivered, according to Businessweek. Comparing the New Jersey returns with the median, pension consultant Chris Tobe said the gap represents $2.5 billion in returns New Jersey could have generated had it performed like the typical public pension. Tobe estimates that $1.2 billion of that difference came from the fees paid on the hedge funds, private equity firms and other so-called "alternative investments."
With those figures in mind, let's return to Christie's pension machinations this week.
According to the Star-Ledger, Christie "said he plans to take $2.43 billion budgeted for the pension fund during this fiscal year and the next one to balance his budgets." That $2.43 billion is less than the combined $1.5 billion Christie is spending on corporate subsidies and the $1.2 billion the Christie administration spent last year on investment fees. In other words, context shows Christie isn't being forced to renege on the pension payment; he's choosing to spend money on corporate subsidies and investment fees rather than on those pension promises.
Why would he make such a choice, you ask? Simply follow the money.
Many of the corporate subsidies are going to companies that just so happen to be big donors to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now chairs. Likewise, the pension investment fees enrich the Wall Street firms that typically bankroll presidential campaigns.
Together, the firms getting the New Jersey subsidies and the investment fees have far more political campaign cash at their disposal than the public workers whose retirements could be jeopardized by Christie's pension maneuver. And so Christie is choosing to side with the bigger money.
As a purely political tactic in the age of the billion-dollar presidential campaign, Christie's move can certainly be seen as shrewd. But let's not pretend it was a matter of necessity -- it was a self-serving decision to protect the donor class.