After Gov. Chris Christie hands off to Phil Murphy in two days, liberals in New Jersey will be unleashed to do as they please, with unchecked power in all three branches.
Part of me rejoices. Murphy will raise the minimum wage, fight climate change, and end the pointless war against pot. His cabinet looks like New Jersey, with a Muslim, a Sikh, and six women, two of them black and two Latino.
But I worry. Because New Jersey is broke, and most Democrats don’t seem to get that.
“That will be a challenge for the new governor,” says Tom Byrne, former Democratic state chairman, and son of the former governor. “People will be saying, ‘You promised me this. Why didn’t you do it already?'”
You may go numb when you hear the phrase “fiscal crisis” because it’s been a fact of life in New Jersey for so long. The sky has not fallen, so it may seem an empty threat, just numbers in a book in a dusty archive.
But it’s real, and the symptoms are everywhere. It explains why our transit system is such a mess, why addicts die waiting for treatment, why college kids pay more for tuition, why some poor kids can’t get a seat in preschool. Aren’t liberals supposed to care about all that stuff?
Jersey City recently paid a retiring police chief $512,000 for unused sick pay. Obscene is the only word I can think of to describe that. How many addicts could have been saved with that money? How many kids could be enrolled in preschool? In all, New Jersey taxpayers are on the hook for nearly $2 billion in these payments.
Health spending is out of control as well. Yes, public workers in New Jersey have taken a beating in the Christie years, with lower benefits and higher payments. But even now, their health plans would qualify as “platinum” under Obamacare.
So, this is an existential moment for Democrats. Murphy will try to raise taxes to soften the pinch, but that won’t be enough. If Democrats want progressive government, they will have to cut spending.
It won’t be easy. Most Democrats hear the word “union” and they think of coal miners fighting ruthless robber barons. But that’s way off.
Benefits for public workers are paid for mostly by middle-class taxpayers. By what warped logic is it “progressive” to force those families to pay for platinum coverage they can’t afford themselves? How many taxpayers are paid for unused sick time?
Byrne is the kind of Democrat who is facing hard facts. In 2014, Christie appointed him as the lead Democrats on a bipartisan commission charged with finding a solution. His co-chair was Tom Healey, a Republican who served in the Reagan treasury department.
Their core conclusion: The only way out is to scale back those platinum health benefits for public workers, leaving them with “gold” level plans, and invest those savings in the depleted pensions funds. But the report landed with a thud, gaining almost no traction among Democrats.
“I went around the state talking to Democratic (county) chairmen, and frankly, no one wanted to…