Gov. Chris Christie Thursday conditionally vetoed what he describes as "an ineffective civil service reform" bill sent to him by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
The governor said the Legislature failed to include "the critically needed opt-out and furlough options" for local governments. He said the bill is an attempt at pacifying special interests by leaving out the most effective provisions and adding others that, by omission or inclusion, completely fail to provide real reform to help control workforce costs and property taxes.
"This bill (A-3590) represents tepid, ineffective and meaningless change," Christie said. "I proposed real reform which would give local officials another tool to constrain property taxes. The Legislature has sent me special interest approved ‘reform' that will do nothing to constrain property taxes. The time for real reform of civil service is overdue. I cannot and will not sign this bill in this form."
In May, the governor proposed what he called a a comprehensive set of proposals — his property tax reform tool kit — in an attempt to empower local governments to control their biggest cost drivers and contributors to property tax increases. Among the most important of the recommendations was change to New Jersey's service system.
Christie pointed out that shared services proposals pending in the Legislature as a potential way to cut local government costs is hamstrung by the bill in its current form — and its lack of a civil service opt-out provision.
Christie stated in his veto message, even the Legislature's Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission, in a December letter to him and the Legislature, determined that civil service seniority-protection rules are among the most significant barriers to shared services between municipalities.
The governor said the bill fails to adequately address temporary layoffs as a tool available for municipalities to avoid significant permanent layoffs. The bill suggests that it permits negotiated furloughs — a right already permitted under the Employer-Employee Relations Act.
"What local governments need, however, is the ability to unilaterally institute temporary layoffs so that more senior union representatives are not empowered to force permanent layoffs by failing to agree to a temporary layoff plan," Christie stated in his conditional veto, which authorized local officials to institute furloughs in a fair and equitable manner.
Christie maintains the bill in its current form also adds bureaucracy with the creation of a task force to abolish civil service titles and revise certain practices of the state Civil Service Commission — a task the commission is already authorized to do and which it is currently engaged in, resulting in the elimination of 1,000 civil service titles since the governor took office. He said creation of the task force will merely serve to slow down and hinder the commission's ongoing efforts, which are already authorized by law.
Christie said while the bill includes some useful provisions — such as extending the working test period, providing for 9-month seasonal appointments and making terminal leave payments optional under certain circumstances - the measure fails to deliver the fundamental civil service reform provided in the Governor's tool kit of reforms.
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver called the conditional veto disappointing.
"The Legislature made clear that we would be willing partners on this issue and we did our part to move forward on civil service reform," Sweeney said. "This was legislation that would continue to safeguard against nepotism and political corruption while modernizing and streamlining the civil service system. It would have implemented policies into the public sector that have been effective in the private sector and it was supported by such groups as the New Jersey Association of Counties.
"Reform means more than just catchy political sound bites that look good on YouTube," Sweeney added. "It requires action, though certainly not the kind we saw by the governor today. His decision has simply placed a roadblock to real reform."
"Much like with his recent veto of legislation to reform our affordable housing system, the governor prefers to forego consensus building and defy the broad agreement we have reached with nearly all of the invested stakeholders," Oliver said. "While many of our largest cities are struggling to try and avert massive layoffs, the Governor is withholding a valuable tool from them. What our civil service legislation would do is preserve a fair hiring system, while also giving local governments the tools they need to achieve cost-savings and root out waste and abuse."
Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset), the sponsor of another proposal (S-2039) that would attempt to change civil service laws, praised Christie's action.
"To ensure that property tax bills remain below the two percent cap, municipal leaders have called for the Legislature to give them the flexibility to opt-out of the civil service system that too often drives up costs, as well as the ability to enact temporary furloughs to avoid permanent layoffs," Bateman said. "Our legislation (S-2039), provides the vital reforms that municipal leaders have called for, which the Democrats' weak bill fails to deliver. It's time for Democrats to stop stalling and finally approve the comprehensive reforms that are needed to bring property taxes under control."
Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Union), a prime sponsor of vetoed legislation, said, "The changes we made are designed to create a more flexible and open system while protecting the public from corruption and patronage. Considering how much emphasis the governor has placed on civil service reform as a key to lowering property taxes, it's amazing that he has let this bill sit on his desk for nearly two months and is now going to delay its implementation even further.
"The cesspool at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority is a prime example of why we need civil service reform to protect taxpayer dollars," Stender said. "There would have been an open and competitive process in place requiring hiring tests. Instead we see the awarding of outrageous salaries and blatant nepotism when it comes to hiring practices. This is the worst case scenario when you eliminate civil service protection."
— TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM