NJ lawmakers look to undo part of Christie’s first pension reform
TRENTON – State lawmakers are looking to enhance the pensions of assistant state and county prosecutors, through a bill that would undo a portion of the first law then-Gov. Chris Christie signed back in 2010.
That law closed the Prosecutors Part of the Public Employees’ Retirement System to new enrollees. It has become more difficult to recruit and retain assistant county prosecutors and deputy state attorneys general as a result, advocates for the new bill say.
Dave Calviello said he has been a career prosecutor in Bergen County for 23 years, rising to chief of the office’s trial section, in part because of the financial security of the Prosecutors Part pension. He said hundreds remain in that part of PERS, “making this generation of assistant prosecutors the most experienced group of prosecutors ever in this state.”
But those hired after May 21, 2010 “lost a significant incentive to make their job a career,” said Calviello, president of the Assistant Prosecutors’ Association of New Jersey. “Since then, we have seen a growing rise in the number of prosecutors who have to leave their positions after just a few years because the cost to stay is just too high.”
The Prosecutors Part of the PERS system was established in 2002, in the lame-duck legislative session following the 2001 election.
Assistant prosecutors have been enrolled in the Defined Contribution Retirement Program for the past 11 years. Under the bill, any service credit they may have in PERS would transfer to the Prosecutors Part without cost, but prosecutors would have to pay for service credits for their time as DCRP members.
Assemblyman Ned Thomson, R-Monmouth, an actuary who was on the PERS board from 1995 to 2017, said prosecutors have “a very good deal working for the state” even enrolled in the DCRP, compared to retirement plans at private law firms.
“After spending 23 years on the PERS board, I remember when this happened, and I remember why it happen. And quite frankly, I am puzzled as to why this bill is even being entertained,” Thomson said.
Thomson noted that on June 3, the Assembly voted 51-21 to pass a bill requiring administrative law judges to be enrolled in PERS, rather than the DCRP.
“The fact of the matter is that they have been chipping away at the reforms that were put in place for a very specific reason. Our unfunded liability has not gone down one iota. And in fact, it’s grown,” he said. “… The mishegoss that we’re in and the unfunded liability is still there.”
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said the reason for the bill is to help recruit prosecutors.
“This is probably a piece that would be attractive of keeping quality people,” Mazzeo said. “I don’t know – I hope we don’t make mistakes we did in the past. And I don’t think this bill will.”
Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said even civic-minded assistant prosecutors are tough to attract and retain, given what they could be paid in the private sector.
“The stakes are simply too high to continue to have a revolving door of inexperienced prosecutors as we see under the present pension system,” Coffina said.
Chelsea Coleman, an Essex County assistant prosecutor with five years of experience, said young lawyers often are working to pay off student loan debt that can be significant after law school.
“In the past year alone, I’ve seen many exceptional prosecutors leave the office simply because it was simply too financially burdensome to stay,” Coleman said.
John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said he’s sympathetic to the plight of the prosecutors’ offices but that it’s a benefit enhancement in a pension system that can’t afford it. This year, local governments were hit with double-digit percent increases in their contribution.
“New Jersey has the worst publicly funded pension system in the entire country,” Donnadio said. “Despite the full contribution to the pension system this year, our pension system, PERS, still remains funded at only 50%.”