Gov. Chris Christie, who will contribute $2.5 billion to the government worker pensions this year, said Wednesday that money alone will not save the pension system.
"It's only the reforms that are going to change this problem" said Christie, who leaves office next month.
he governor made a final push at a Trenton news conference for the recommendations devised by a special pension and health benefit commission to move workers onto less generous retirement and health plans.
The commission warned pension and health benefits will eat up roughly a quarter of the state operating budget by 2023 if state officials don't undertake difficult reforms. Its own recommendations would keep those benefits to 15 percent of the budget.
The commission proposed freezing the existing pension plan and moving workers onto hybrid of a defined-benefit and defined-contribution retirement plan. Workers would also be asked to pay more for lesser health benefits.
Doing so would require suspending workers' rights to collectively bargain for health care benefits, for which Christie said his successor, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy may not have much of an appetite.
"I don't know, politically, given some of the positions the governor-elect has taken how he intends to deal with it," Christie said. "But the great thing about this job is once you get here, you have no alternative but to be confronted with it. And then we'll see how he reacts."
Christie called the commission's work a "responsible and nonpartisan blueprint" for the incoming governor's administration to consider.
"A message today is that the personalities in Trenton are going to change, but the math is not changing. And if anything, the math is getting a little bit worse," said Tom Byrne, a member of the pension commission and chairman of the State Investment Council, which oversees pension investments.
The retirement security of nearly 800,000 current and retired public workers is at stake, Byrne said, and it's unclear how they will fare if pension funds run dry.
Christie warned retirees shouldn't count on the state to pay benefits out of its general treasury once pension funds are depleted.
After paying for education, Medicaid and debt service, which aren't discretionary, the state doesn't have the money to pay the tab, Christie said.
"When you look at this budget, there's not a lot left in discretionary spending. You could eliminate all the discretionary spending in this budget and not be able to fund the pension," he said.
"So, it would seem to me that what's going to happen -- and this is why I've never understood the unions' position on this -- their members are going to wind up being the ones who are hurt in the long run."
The commission's final report, released Wednesday, said the sweeping reforms enacted in 2011 and the incremental pension and health benefit changes made since then helped, but won't prevent the costs from consuming more than a quarter of the budget by 2023.
In fact, Christie's moves to shift lottery ticket proceeds into the pension fund and revisions to health care plans will only reduce that share from 27 percent to 26 percent, the report found.