Pension Payments and Minimum Wage

Click here for a PDF of the release text, questions, and tables. 


Strong support for minimum wage increase

 NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As a battle looms over recent proposals by Democratic leaders in the state Legislature, public opinion has taken sides on the issues of pension payments and the minimum wage in New Jersey, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.

Registered voters are more in favor than opposed to a proposed constitutional amendment that would require the state to make yearly payments to the public employee pension system. When the pros and cons of mandated regular payments are explained, a 49 percent plurality supports the plan. Forty percent say they would oppose it, however, and 11 percent are unsure.

But voters do not want to fund regular payments if it means higher taxes or making cuts elsewhere in the budget: 77 percent oppose the former and 54 percent oppose the latter as ways to fund the pension system.

Sixty-two percent of voters would prefer state workers contribute more toward their own pensions. Sixty-eight percent wish to see cost-saving reforms made to public employee health benefits, something already put forth by Gov. Chris Christie and his bipartisan commission.

A millionaire’s tax also is a popular funding method with voters: 71 percent support increasing taxes on the wealthiest New Jerseyans in order to make regular pension payments.

“Details play a crucial role in voter responses to these issues,” said Ashley Koning, assistant director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “Voters are more likely than not to favor mandated pension payments, but they do not want to pay for it themselves.”

A proposal to increase the minimum wage in New Jersey gets much more support than the pension payment amendment. Seventy-three percent of voters support the plan proposed by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, which would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next several years. Twenty-five percent oppose it, and 2 percent are unsure.

“Voters have always strongly favored minimum wage increases in New Jersey,” said Koning. “This time is no different despite the proposed hourly jump from $8.38 to $15 – most likely because voters were explicitly told that the increase would be gradual.”

Sweeney, who most expect to run for governor in 2017, has been a guiding force for both the minimum wage and pension proposal, but over half of voters in the Garden State have no opinion of him or do not know who he is. Another 27 percent have a favorable impression of Sweeney, while 19 percent have an unfavorable one.

Results are from a statewide poll of 801 adults contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Feb. 18 to 23, 2016, including 710 registered voters reported on in this release. The registered voter sample has a margin of error of +/-3.8 percentage points. Interviews were done in English and, when requested, Spanish.

Pension issue divided by key demographics

While there is a predictable partisan divide on pensions, it is not as strong as might be expected. Fifty-seven percent of Democrats support the amendment, while 31 percent oppose it and 12 percent are unsure. Republicans are just the opposite: 38 percent support requiring regular pension payments, while 51 percent oppose it and 10 percent are unsure. Independents are split, 47 percent support to 43 percent oppose; another 10 percent are uncertain.

Those in public union households are unsurprisingly big supporters of the amendment; 64 percent support it, though 26 percent of this group is opposed and 11 percent are undecided. Voters living in households with no union affiliation are evenly divided – 45 percent support to 44 percent oppose.

While a plurality supports quarterly pensions payments, tax increases or other budget cuts are not seen as the answer to funding the payments. Anti-tax sentiment is strongest among Republicans and conservatives – over eight in 10 oppose increasing taxes. Almost the same number of independents is against tax hikes as a means of funding the pension. A majority of Democrats also do not want to increase taxes to fund pension payments (30 percent support to 66 percent oppose), though they are less likely to say so than their partisan counterparts.

But even if they do not want to see their own taxes increased, partisans of all stripes – 85 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents, and even 50 percent of Republicans – support a tax increase specifically on millionaires.

Making cuts to other services, programs, and aid elsewhere in the budget in order to fund pension payments also provokes strong opposition, though from different sources. Over half of Republicans support this method of funding (54 percent to 41 percent oppose). Independents (at 43 percent support to 49 percent oppose) and especially Democrats (at 24 percent support to 67 percent oppose) take the opposite view.

Support for making budget cuts is also significantly influenced by gender. Male voters are split 49 percent support to 45 percent oppose, but female voters are solidly against making cuts – 29 percent support to 62 percent oppose.

Support for budget cuts increases along with income, from 30 percent among those in households making under $50,000 annually to a 51 percent bare majority among those making $150,000.

Putting the burden to fund regular pension payments on state workers themselves is popular with a number of groups. A majority of Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike support requiring state workers to contribute more to their pensions and benefits, as well as reforming their health benefits to be more in line with private health insurance plans. Non-white voters are less likely than white voters to support such actions, but a majority of both non-white and white voters favor these measures.

Likewise, voters in higher income households are more likely than those with lower incomes to support increased contributions from state workers and reform of public worker health benefits, but majorities in both groups nonetheless are in favor of each.

Voters in public union employee households are solidly against paying more toward their pensions and benefits – 34 percent support to 63 percent oppose. Yet more than half of this group – 55 percent – would be open to reforming their health benefits; 39 percent would oppose it. Seven in 10 voters from non-union households support both of these measures in order to fund regular pension payments.

Strong minimum wage support across the board

A majority of nearly every group favors the most recent minimum wage proposal, which calls for an immediate increase from $8.38 to $10.10 an hour, followed by an annual increase of $1 plus cost of living adjustments over the next five years. Only Republicans and conservatives are more likely to oppose than support the change – 43 percent support to 54 oppose among Republicans and 43 percent support to 55 percent oppose among conservatives.

Female voters (83 percent support), non-white voters (85 percent support), younger voters (78 percent support), and voters in the lowest income bracket (78 percent support) show even greater support for the proposition than their counterparts.

Sweeney and other prospective 2017 candidates largely unknown

Sweeney is not alone in being relatively unknown statewide among prospective 2017 gubernatorial candidates. Seventy-five percent of voters have no opinion or do not know of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is thought to be planning a Democratic bid. Fourteen percent are favorable toward him, and 11 percent are unfavorable. Former U.S. Ambassador Phil Murphy, also a Democrat, is least known of all, at 87 percent; 8 percent feel favorably toward him, and 4 percent feel unfavorably.

On the GOP side, 57 percent are still unaware of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno; another 22 percent have a favorable impression of her, while the remaining 21 percent have an unfavorable impression.

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