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Judges Common Enemy for Opposing State Parties

Lawmakers plan to vote on a constitutional amendment allowing the state to collect more from judges for their pension and health benefits.

On rare occasions, when all the stars align just right, government can work quickly.

Witness the soon-to-be balloted question that would make judges pay more for their pension and health benefits.

Just last Tuesday the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that last year's law increasing pension and health benefit contribution rates did not apply to members of the judiciary because of a constitutional provision banning pay cuts for sitting judges.

All other public employees have already started paying those higher rates—in effect, reducing their pay—and the court decision, while not unexpected, clearly angered Gov. Chris Christie and legislators who voted for the changes last summer. 

This galvanized Republicans and Democrats alike. 

Two days later, on Thursday, the Senate held the legally required hearing on a bill, SCR110, that would place on the November ballot a constitutional amendment giving the Legislature the right to make judges pay more for their benefits. jk

Lawmakers, who usually enjoy at least a two-month summer vacation, are not expected to take too much time away from that break, with the Senate scheduled to vote Monday at 10:30 a.m. and the Assembly set for 11 a.m. It's the only bill on their board lists.

On the one hand, the quick action was necessary because the deadline for placing a question on the ballot was Aug. 2.

On the other hand, it's a no-brainer. People like paying less for state worker benefits, believing those employees had it too good for a long time. And not even the state workers are going to be complaining about this one, given they are already being forced to pay more themselves.

It's not surprising, then, that legislators moved with lightning speed to get this on the ballot in time for the coming election. There's little question it will get the three-fifths majority needed in each house to make it onto the ballot, where voters should endorse it overwhelmingly.

Almost no one cheered the Supreme Court's decision that the constitution does not allow a judge's salary to be cut. 

There is good reason for that. The judiciary should be impartial in deciding cases; judges should not have to worry that a ruling will mean a loss of pay or of a job. That's what the majority said, though two justices disagreed.

Last year's legislation will mean a huge pay cut. Once fully implemented in three more years, all public workers at the top of the pay scale—earning more than $95,000-$110,000, depending on coverage—will have to pay 35 percent of their total health premiums. And pension contributions for judges would rise from 3 percent of salary (currently the lowest rate for all public workers) to 12 percent in seven years.

The state's Supreme Court associate justices earn about $185,000 a year. Their pension contributions alone would rise from $5,500 a year to $22,000. There is no denying that's a pay cut of $16,500.

The state's contribution calculator seems to indicate the health benefits premium increase would cost an additional $910 for family health and prescription coverage, although the analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services of the constitutional amendment estimates no savings from the health care premium changes. That analysis did estimate a savings of less than $1 million this year, about $4 million in the 2015 fiscal year, from higher judicial pension contributions.

That's not a huge savings, but all classes of public workers should be paying their share. And making sure the state meets its obligations to workers, while not breaking taxpayers financially is crucial.

But there are a lot of other critical issues facing the state, over which the parties cannot agree.

The Democrats have the majority and can usually pass whatever they want. But Christie controls all GOP votes almost of the time and when the vote turns partisan, as it has over same sex marriage, the budget and numerous other bills, there's gridlock. Just last week, Christie vetoed a bill that would have kept the state in a regional pact that would have led to reductions in green house gases and funding for clean energy programs. There's no way the Democrats will be able to override that.

It would be nice to see lawmakers move this quickly, and for the two parties to work together, to resolve more critical issues facing the state.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with nearly three decades in the news business.

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