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New Jersey’s Residents Split on Cutting Public-Worker Benefits

New Jersey residents are split on Governor Chris Christie’s proposals to reduce benefits for current public workers and require them to pay more of their health-care premiums, a poll found.

Forty-six percent of voters support cutting benefits for existing employees, and 46 percent disapprove, according to a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll released today. The public’s view has changed since a Monmouth survey in 2008, when a majority opposed a reduction.

Christie, a first-term Republican, called on lawmakers this month to roll back a 9 percent benefits increase enacted in 2001 to help trim a $46 billion deficit in the state’s pension fund. He also proposed making workers cover 30 percent of their health costs, up from 8 percent now. Forty-three percent of voters polled by Monmouth said workers shouldn’t have to pay more than 10 percent of their medical premiums.

“The public agrees wholeheartedly that something needs to be done to rein in pension costs, but he needs to tread carefully when it comes to eliminating benefits that have already been promised,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in an interview today. “It’s not their fault it wasn’t managed properly.”

Sixty-one percent of poll respondents said new government workers should be put into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan instead of a pension. Sixty-one percent also said government doesn’t need to give more generous benefits than private employers.

Trust in Christie

Sixty-seven percent said they have at least some trust in Christie to overhaul state government, including 32 percent who said “a lot”. While Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature each received a similar overall trust level, only 14 percent said they trusted the lawmakers a lot.

“While the New Jersey public is not unquestioning in its support, the governor does have a credibility advantage over the legislature,” Murray said.

Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, declined to comment on the poll.

New Jersey’s $68.1 billion pension fund, which provides benefits to 780,000 current and retired employees, had a deficit of $46 billion as of June 2009 because of investment losses and missed contributions, according to annual financial reports.

Pension Obligations

Seventy-eight percent of poll respondents said the state’s pension costs are out of control, up from 59 percent who felt that way five years ago.

Christie’s plan to reshape state government also includes ethics, education and economic-development proposals. He has said he will seek stricter campaign-finance rules, and a ban on holding more than one public job that ends an exemption for existing dual officeholders.

Seventy-one percent of voters polled by Monmouth University said they disapprove of anyone holding two or more public jobs, even if both positions are part-time.

West Long Branch-based Monmouth surveyed 801 New Jersey adults by telephone from Sept. 15-19. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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