Sunday NYT magazine: How NJ Governor Chris Christie “did his homework” on state pensions and stuff.

From the (next Sunday) New York Times magazine–and I hope that pesky firewall does not get in the way.

I didn’t support Chris Christie when he ran in 2009. Maybe it didn’t matter, because I was merely New Jersey domiciled, not resident. So I didn’t get a state vote.

It seemed to me that Christie was going to be another one of these Republican governors who gets in there to take care of his/her friends. This started with a guy named Tom Kean (1982-90), then continued with a woman named Christie Whitman (1994-2001 or so), and then a smattering of the Acting Governors we had in the early 2000’s.

New Jersey has big tax problems. One, for instance, is that the property tax–the tax you have to pay to own and live in your house–is the highest average in America, something like $7,000 a year. (Yes.) You have to pay a lot of money just to live in your house. That is, if you even own it and not the bank.

Although new taxes were enacted (such as the state income tax in 1976) to try to bring relief for the high property taxes, the problem is that that money quickly got diverted for some other spending. And the high property taxes remained.

A lot of times the taxes make it impossible for poorer or elderly people to stay in their homes. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was a youngster my elderly neighbor had to leave her house and go live with relatives because she couldn’t afford to pay the taxes on the house. She owned the house, but couldn’t stay in it.

That said, I just really didn’t think much of Chris Christie as a Republican or as a guy who was going to do very much more than get Somerset County lobbyist Dale Florio’s clients set up nice like in the Whitman Administration.

So to my surprise, I hear more and more that Christie is actually attacking some of the forty and fifty-year problems the state has, and one of them is that state workers have a much more generous compensation package than the average Joe.

You know from reading me, that when I get talking about taxes or some detail sh*t, you know, you either really want the details or you just tune out and go somewhere else. I’ve always studied the New Jersey situation, and I’ll tell you, I could never figure out how the state was going to afford all the things that were promised to the state workers.

Now, there is a governor saying the exact same thing.

Chris Christie is asking the state workers to pay 30% of their health insurance premiums. Right now, it’s just 1.5%. He is trying to get the pension retirement age to 65, from 60. He wants to move back the pension “denominator” ffigure to 60, from 55. (The denominator is what you divide your years of service by in order to figure out what fraction of your salary will still be paid as a pension. If you have 10 years in, and the denominator is 55, that’s 10/55 or 18%. If it’s a denominator of 60, it’s 10/60 or 16.6%)

The main union in the state, the New Jersey Education Association, is raising hell over Governor Christie’s reforms. But the more they yell, the more Christie is making the point that the state doesn’t have the money. The people pay $7,000 a year to live in their houses, and there is no more money. There really isn’t even the money to pay the promises that were made for retiree health care and such.

I said to some friends along the way in Japan, that if you ever wanted to see the American version of the nice setups that Japanese connected people make for themselves, they need only look at New Jersey. It is a state where things get done off “understandings” and “old traditions”, where change is a dirty word.

I am for unions and against what Governor Scott Walker is doing in Wisconsin. But if the money is not there to pay these past promises–which now turn out to be empty to some extent–no amount of histrionics is going to change that.

In my ideal New Jersey, they get the property taxes down by more progressive taxation. But the state’s top rate had gone to 10%, and the property taxes are as high as ever. So there isn’t much more that can be done.

I personally don’t think Christie’s that great. But he’s on the right issue, and he is making changes in a state where the vested interests did their heels in the same way the Japanese do when they don’t want to give in.