NJ voters continue electing pension double-dippers
New Jersey is groaning under one of the nation’s worst pension crisis, with growing costs threatening to squeeze out other spending and boost taxes. Yet Jersey’s voters continue to elect officials who exploit the deeply indebted pension system, sending a message to lawmakers that reform isn’t a priority.
Tuesday’s election featured a high-profile race that revolved around the issue of pension double-dipping, the common practice in the Garden State of elected and appointed officials collecting a pension from government at the same time that they continue working and drawing a salary. Mercer County Sheriff Jack Kemler was running for reelection to a position that’s been lucrative for him. He collects a total of $227,000 in annual salary and simultaneous retirement benefits, including nearly $85,000 in pension payments from his previous job as an undersheriff, according to press reports.
Double-dipping is particularly pervasive among county sheriffs and their staffs, according to an investigation by the website New Jersey Watchdog. It reported last year that 17 of the 21 county sheriffs take home government pensions and salaries, and 29 undersheriffs on their staffs do likewise. In all they take in $4.9 million in pay and an additional $3.4 million in pensions.
Kemler’s opponent in the race, retired State Police Major David Jones, argued that double-dipping, though legal, was wrong, and he decided to make a stand. Jones ran on a campaign theme of One Sheriff, One Paycheck and pledged to forgo his $91,000 a year pension if elected sheriff. But despite Jones’ qualifications as a law enforcement officer—he spent 27 years with the state police—and his stand on pensions, voters overwhelmingly reelected Kemler.
That continues a disturbing pattern in the Garden State. Last year, during Jersey’s state legislative elections, 18 assembly and senate incumbents from both parties who double-dip were up for reelection, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who in addition to her $49,000 a year legislative salary receives a pension of nearly $41,000 annually. In her case, both incomes are for the same job because Jersey allows legislators to retire while still in office and get both a pension and salary. All 18 legislators won reelection. Their retirement checks annually cost the overburdened pension system nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.
Elected officials also continue to employ a host of staffers who double-dip, including those working for the governor, the state’s comptroller and the attorney general. Rather than simply resign their state jobs when appointed to the staff of an official, these employees retire, grab their pension and take home a salary, too.
Several years ago, for instance, New Jersey Watchdog found 23 investigators and supervisors working for the attorney general’s office who were double dipping. Many were previously employed in law enforcement capacities elsewhere in government. To qualify for their pensions, they simply retired for a day or so, and then took a job in the AG’s office. In all, these folks were collecting $1.5 million in pension payments on top of $2.3 million in salaries.
Double-dipping is part of a pattern nationwide in which elected officials take for themselves advantages from pension systems that we voters expect the legislators to manage responsibly and reform when debt gets out of control.
I wrote about the pattern a few years ago, where I noted that in Arizona, for instance, legislators give themselves a more generous formula to figure out pensions than regular state employees get. In Texas, legislator pensions are not figured based on their salaries, which are for part time work, but rather on the salary scale used for state judges, who are full time. Thus pensions are lucrative for part-time Texas legislators, even if pay is not.
In NJ, double-dipping is hardly the biggest fiscal problem facing the pension system, which is some $100 billion in debt. But the pervasive practice erodes the moral authority of elected officials, who can’t easily ask for sacrifices from state employees and taxpayers to fix a system that officials themselves exploit.
But officials don’t have much incentive to enact tough reforms right now. One piece of legislation sponsored by State Senator Jennifer Beck to end double-dipping has been stuck in committee for three years. At least two members of that committee are double-dippers themselves.
The legislation will probably remain mired in committee until Jersey voters stop reelecting officials who contribute to the state’s pension woes.