Chris Christie

New Jersey Tunes Out on Pension Payments

Public opinion of Chris Christie continues on an even keel since dropping precipitously after the Bridgegate story broke in January.  The Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll also finds that few New Jerseyans are paying attention to issues surrounding the state budget pension fund contributions.  While most favor a millionaire’s tax to help pay the state’s pension obligation, less than half feel the same about raising the corporate business tax.

Currently, Gov. Christie’s job rating stands at 50% approve to 42% disapprove among New Jersey residents and 49% approve to 43% disapprove among the state’s registered voters.  His job approval numbers are basically the same as polls taken in April and February.  Also, 45% of New Jerseyans have a favorable opinion of Chris Christie as a person and 38% have an unfavorable opinion.  Compared to April, positive views of Christie have risen by 5 points and negative views have risen by 3 points. Those having no opinion of Christie as a person have dropped from 25% in April to 17% in the current poll.

“Governor Christie’s job rating took a significant hit in the aftermath of the Bridgegate email revelations, but those numbers bottomed out within a month,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.  “His personal rating also dropped, with the scandal causing many New Jerseyans to say they didn’t know what to make of Christie’s character.  Those views are taking a little longer to settle.”

Bridgegate may dominate the national headlines where Chris Christie is concerned, but his decision to forego scheduled pension contributions this year and significantly cut next year’s payment has been the overriding issue in Trenton this month.  Outside the state capital, though, most New Jerseyans are paying little attention.  [Note: All the poll interviews were conducted after a court decision last week upheld the governor’s action and nearly all the interviews were conducted after the legislature passed its budget on Thursday.  The interviewing period ended Sunday, before the Governor enacted the budget with line-item vetoes.]

There is no question that most Garden State residents (62%) believe that the state’s pension costs are out of control.  Only 18% believe these costs are being managed wisely.  This opinion is somewhat, but not much, more positive than the 78% who said the costs were out of control in September 2010, shortly after Christie took office and before the pension reforms enacted in 2011 that created a set schedule of payments.

Among those who say the costs are out of control, just 1-in-3 (35%) say that Gov. Christie carries a lot of blame for it.  Many more (59%) say the state legislature shoulders a lot of the blame for this problem, including majorities of Democrats (56%), Republicans (56%) and independents (63%) alike.  However, the poll found that few residents have formed an opinion of recent developments on the pension issue.

When asked about Christie’s decision to put off the scheduled payments, nearly half (49%) of New Jerseyans say they have no opinion on it.  Among the remainder, 38% disapprove of the governor’s action and just 13% approve.  For those who have an opinion, Democrats (44% disapprove to 4% approve), Republicans (31% disapprove to 20% approve), and independents (35% disapprove to 18% approve) alike are more likely to disapprove rather than approve of Christie’s move.

Democrats in the legislature passed a budget that included the scheduled pension payments, funded by increased tax rates on people earning over one million dollars and on businesses in the state.  The New Jersey public likes the former idea, but not the latter.  Specifically, 66% say that increasing the so-called “millionaires tax” is a good idea and just 29% say it is a bad idea.  On the other hand, only 40% say raising the corporate business tax to make the pension payments is a good idea while 52% say it is a bad idea.

“Republican legislators argued that both tax hikes would send job creators fleeing from the state.  It seems that the New Jersey public, however, makes a distinction on the potential negative consequences of raising taxes on businesses versus high-earning individuals,” said Murray.

Most Democrats (79%) and independents (65%) favor a millionaires tax hike, while just 44% of Republicans feel the same.  When it comes to raising taxes on businesses, most Republicans (66%) and independents (54%) say it is a bad idea, while Democrats are somewhat more positive (43% bad idea and 50% good idea).  Regardless, Gov. Christie always said he would veto both tax hikes.

In vetoing these new taxes, the governor had a choice on which spending items in the budget he could cut to offset the lower revenue.  When weighed against making cuts in aid to schools and municipalities, more New Jerseyans (48%) say the pension payments should be delayed rather than cuts to local aid (27%).  On the other hand, more Garden State residents favor laying off state workers (44%) rather than delaying scheduled pension payments (35%).  These latter results on pitting pension payments against layoffs are nearly identical to a poll taken in February 2009, the last year of Jon Corzine’s administration.

Looking ahead for ways to reduce future pension costs, nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Garden State residents support the idea of putting all newly hired state workers on a defined contribution plan and only 29% disapprove.  Support levels for this idea are nearly identical to those found in a September 2010 poll (61% approve and 27% disapprove) and higher than in March 2008 (52% approve and 37% disapprove).

New Jerseyans, though, are not in favor of making cuts to the benefits of current state workers.  Just 38% approve of reducing pension benefits for the current state workforce while 53% disapprove.  These numbers are nearly identical to a poll taken in March 2008 (39% approve and 54% disapprove) and slightly more disapproving than a poll taken in September 2010 (46% approve and 46% disapprove).  Among current and former public workers, 25% approve of this idea and 71% disapprove.  Among New Jerseyans who have not worked for a state or local agency, 43% approve of making cuts to current workers’ benefits and 48% disapprove.

“Few New Jerseyans feel that the pension system has been shored up during Christie’s term, but they mostly blame the legislature and aren’t really paying close attention to recent developments.  This gives the governor a fairly free hand to make his next move,” said Murray.  He added, “The specter of Bridgegate still hangs over the governor, but the scandal hasn’t inflicted any additional damage since the initial revelations in January.”

It has been nearly six months since the public learned about emails ordering lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.  Despite the lack of any direct evidence, more New Jerseyans continue to believe that the governor was personally involved in the decision to close the lanes (46%) than say he was not involved (42%), which is similar to the results of polls taken in April and February.  The public also believes that Christie is more concerned about his own political future (55%) than governing the state of New Jersey (32%).  These numbers are basically unchanged from polls taken over the past four months.

Garden State residents may feel that the governor has not come clean about the Bridgegate scandal, but they don’t hold the special legislative committee investigating those charges in particularly high regard.  Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) say the committee is more interested in going after the governor while only 26% say the committee’s primary aim is to learn the facts of the case.  Public opinion of the committee has not changed since February.  The poll also finds that opinion of the state legislature overall remains in the same negative territory it has occupied for the past four months.  The legislature’s current job rating registers at 38% approve to 44% disapprove among all adults and 36% approve to 48% disapprove among registered voters.

The Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll was conducted by telephone with 800 New Jersey adults from June 25 to June 29, 2014.  This sample has a margin of error of + 3.5 percent.  The poll was conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute and originally published by the Asbury Park Press and its sister publications (Courier-Post, Courier News, Daily Journal, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune).