BY TOM HESTER SR.
An Assembly vote on legislation designed to change the binding-arbitration system when it comes to government contract negotiations with public employee unions, was delayed Monday when members of the Democratic majority declined to support it.
The bill, which would especially affect negotiations with local police and firefighter unions, is opposed by municipal officials as too weak.
After a closed-door Democratic caucus, Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) attempted to put some of the blame for the delay on Gov. Chris Christie.
"The Assembly's goal in advancing this bill was to at the very least begin an intelligent debate on this key policy issue, and that clearly has happened,' Oliver said. "The Assembly Democrats had a thorough discussion of this bill today as we continue our efforts to combat property taxes. We have broad support for our reform legislation, but the bottom line is our hopes to build a consensus have so far been rejected by the governor's office."We are postponing our vote on this bill, but we are not going to give up our efforts to find progress on this important issue," Oliver added. "We are committed to getting this done for the benefit of New Jersey taxpayers. The governor must be open to legislation that does not, as his current plan would do, guarantee annual property tax increases. After all, bipartisanship is much more than a handshake on a stage, and our caucus wants this to be bipartisan."
The Democrats planned to hurry the proposal through the Legislature with a final vote of the Senate set for Nov. 22.
Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, said in response to the vote delay, "With only 57 days left for the legislature to act, it's disappointing that another day has gone by without real action on the tool kit, including a hard cap on arbitration awards. A hard cap would bring meaningful collective-bargaining reform and is essential to finally control property taxes for every New Jersey homeowner.
"Governor Christie urges the legislature to fulfill the commitment it made when it passed the 2 percent property tax cap and enact real arbitration reform and the other necessary tool kit bills without further delay," Drewniak concluded.
Local officials complain arbitration awards to police and fire unions are often expensive and out of line with other public employee contract settlements.
The proposal (A-3393) would establish "last offer" as the terminal procedure for resolving contractual impasses between local governments and police and fire departments, under which each side would present their final offer, with the arbitrator selecting one as the final agreement. Legislators believe this form of arbitration is generally viewed as forcing both sides in a dispute to be more realistic in their proposals and less likely to freeze negotiations prior to the arbitration stage.
Bill Dressel, director of the League of Municipalities, which opposes the bill as too weak, welcomed the vote delay and said Oliver has agreed to discuss possible amendments.
"We want to thank all mayors and local officials who contacted their representatives in the Assembly in response to our October 22 letter on this matter, Dressel said. "Having approved an inflexible 2 percent cap on the property tax levy, state policy makers need to recognize that any arbitration awards with a total economic impact of more than 2 percent will force cuts elsewhere in local budgets," Dressel said.
"To fund increased public safety compensation, in excess of the 2 percent cap, municipalities will need to cut services, salaries and/or personnel in other departments or reduce the number of uniformed personnel. And even those actions will not satisfy the public's hunger for reduced property tax burdens. They will only slow the rate of growth.
"We support the provisions of S-2310/A-3283, which require the arbitrator to cap the full economic impact of the award at the 2 percent limit," Dressel said. "Nothing short of that can assure local elected officials that they will be able to continue to provide adequate public services to their citizens."
Among other provisions, the delayed arbitration bill would:
Make the new 2 percent property tax levy cap a key item for consideration by an arbitrator when making decisions.
Require arbitrator decisions to be accompanied by a written report explaining in detail how each of the statutory criteria played into their determination of the final award.
The report would certify that the arbitrator took the local levy cap into account in making the award.
Change the process for selecting an arbitrator for interest arbitration to ensure a more varied and impartial group of arbitrators makes decisions.
Change the process by which judgments are appealed.
And require arbitrators to meet stringent professional responsibility, impartiality and ethics and guidelines.