June 23, 2011

Shock and ‘Awww’ at the NYT Over ‘Once-Unthinkable’ New Jersey Govt. Union ‘Setback’

chris-christieIt took well over a year, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has gotten his way.

Covering the story for the New York Times, Richard Perez-Pena seemed to alternate between shock and “Awww.” His biggest journalistic distortion was understating the degree to which Christie needed — and got — Democratic Party help to pass legislation which, in Pena’s words, “will sharply increase what state and local workers must contribute for their health insurance and pensions, suspend cost-of-living increases to retirees pension checks, raise retirement ages and curb the unions’ contract bargaining rights.”

The shock and “Awww” at the Times extends to the difference between the item’s browser window title (“N.J. Legislature Moves to Cut Benefits for Public Workers”) and the article title, which readers will see after the jump (bolds and numbered tags are mine):

New Jersey Lawmakers Approve Benefits Rollback for Work Force

New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday approved a broad rollback of benefits for 750,000 government workers and retirees, the deepest cut in state and local costs in memory, in a major victory for Gov. Chris Christie and a once-unthinkable setback for the state’s powerful public employee unions.

The Assembly passed the bill 46 to 32, as Republicans and a few Democrats [1] defied raucous protests by thousands of people whose chants, vowing electoral revenge, shook the State House. Leaders in the State Senate said their chamber, which had already passed a slightly different version of the bill, would approve the Assembly version on Monday. Mr. Christie, a Republican, was expected to sign the measure into law quickly.

The legislation will sharply increase what state and local workers must contribute for their health insurance and pensions, suspend cost-of-living increases to retirees’ pension checks, raise retirement ages and curb the unions’ contract bargaining rights. It will save local and state governments $132 billion over the next 30 years, by the administration’s estimate, and give the troubled benefit systems a sounder financial footing, mostly by shifting costs onto workers.

While states around the country have moved to pare labor costs and limit the power of unions [2], the move is all the more striking here, in a Democratic-leaning state [3] where Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and union membership is among the highest in the country. Most Democratic legislators opposed the benefits reductions, but their leaders voted in favor of the changes, exposing deep, longstanding rifts in the party that lawmakers say could weaken it in coming elections.

The fight over benefits reflected both Mr. Christie’s ability to exploit the divisions among Democrats, through his alliances with more conservative Democratic party bosses and legislators, and his success at using the public-sector unions as a foil in his drive to shrink government spending. It has also allowed a nationally known but highly polarizing governor to claim the mantle of bipartisan conciliation [4], telling audiences that New Jersey is setting an example that other states and the federal government should follow.

… The legislation applies to all state employees and to a much larger number of county, town and school district workers, because most local governments participate in the state-run pension and health care systems. When it is fully phased in, after four years, the average government worker will pay several thousand dollars more into the benefit funds.

But union leaders say the bigger issue is what they call a stealth assault on collective bargaining.

… In his campaign to rein in the unions and shrink government, Mr. Christie has often been helped by New Jersey’s unique political culture, where local political machines still dominate some areas, and many state legislators also hold local government jobs. That gives striking influence in Trenton to mayors, county executives and local party bosses who struggle with rising labor costs and have repeatedly sided with the governor’s push to cut benefits and wages. [5]

Pena’s report has a large number of howlers, most in the excerpt above, and one in unexcerpted material. First, let’s get to the ones associated with the numbered tags above:

  • [1] — Given that the Assembly has 47 Democrats and 33 Republicans, it took more than “a few Democrats” to get the law passed in the Assembly by the 46-32 margin indicated. If all Republicans voted “yes,” 13 Democrats, or over a quarter of the total, also had to support the bill. 13 is more than a few to anyone except a bitter New York Times reporter.
  • [2] — It’s interesting how Perez-Pena avoided naming specific states, because what happened in New Jersey, complete with raucous protests and threats of payback at the voting booth, sounds like what happened in Wisconsin and Ohio, two other states which recently moved from Democratic to GOP governors.
  • [3] — Calling New Jersey “a Democrat-leaning state” is like calling Texas “sort of big.” The last time the Garden State gave its electoral votes to a Republican presidential candidate was 1988. Though its congressional delegation has been mostly seven Democrats and six Republicans during the past 20 years, it hasn’t had a Republican U.S. Senator since 1982. The current 59% and 60% Democrat majorities in the Assembly and Senate, respectively, represent far more than a “lean.”
  • [4] — Y’know, Mr. Perez-Pena, it just may be that a guy who gets one-quarter of Assembly Democrats and one-third of State Senate Democrats to go along with him isn’t so “polarizing” after all. What’s “polarizing” is how the press routinely defines almost any conservative or Republican who actually accomplishes something meaningful as “polarizing.”
  • [5] — Actually, Mr. Perez-Pena, this sounds like a government where its representatives actually have to sleep in the bed they make. Given the arrangements the New York Times reporter describes, it’s a bit surprising that something wasn’t done about New Jersey’s looming fiscal crisis long ago.

In unexcerpted material, Perez-Pena absurdly tried to give some credit to Christie’s predecessor, Democrat John Corzine, for a degree of cost control, writing that “The pendulum (of overspending) has swung back over the last four years, first under Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, and then under Mr. Christie …”

Give me a break. Every time Corzine ran into a little resistance, he raised taxes. In fact, in 2006, Corzine shut down the government — not because he wanted to cut costs, but because he demanded, and got, a sales tax increase. Any cuts Corzine may have attempted after that paled in comparison to the size and scope of the tax increases he pushed through.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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2 Comments

  1. [...] New Jersey, as I noted last night (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), the New York Times’s Richard Perez-Pena was in a combination of shock and [...]

    Pingback by BizzyBlog — June 24, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

  2. [...] and bargaining relationship with its public-sector unions. Malloy is learning the hard way that Christie’s approach works, and that depending on the unions to voluntarily give back anything doesn’t. Sadly, when push [...]

    Pingback by BizzyBlog — June 27, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

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