BY TOM HESTER SR.
After a four-hour hearing scarred by the citation of 25 protesting labor union works, the state Senate Budget Committee approved legislation to change health and pension benefits for New Jersey’s 500,000 state and local government employees.
The proposal, a compromise between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the leaders of the Legislature’s usually pro-labor Democratic leaders, has even caused a split among the leaders of public employee unions. While over 3,500 public employees and their supporters chanted their opposition outside the Statehouse and shouted during the hearing, police and firefighter union leaders applauded Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the Budget Committee chairman, before the session began.
A similar scene may play out on Monday when the legislation (S-2937) receives a vote on the Senate floor and a hearing before the Assembly Budget Committee. The lower house is prepared to take a floor vote on Thursday.
The Senate Budget Committee vote was nine to four, with four Democrats and five Republicans voting in favor. The Democrats were Senators Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Brian Stack (D-Hudson) and James Beach (D-Camden).
In remarks before the New Jersey Association of Counties in Atlantic City in Thursday, Christie praised what he described as the bipartisan effort to move the legislation.
“The debate and discussion that’s going on in Trenton this morning and will continue through next week, is in the interest of the taxpayers first and foremost,” the governor said. “But it is equally in the interest of the public employees who want to continue to be provided with excellent health coverage and who want to be able, at the conclusion of their career, to collect a pension that they were promised.
“Now that second part may get lost in all the scrum that is going on down there right now, but it will come back,” Christie said. “It will come back, because the truth is the truth, and the numbers are the numbers.”
The governor said the pension changes proposed in the legislation alone will save taxpayers $122 billion over the next 30 years and bring all of the public employee pension systems into a 80 percent funding ratio.
“… This is a bipartisan effort,” Christie said. “This could not happen without Republicans and Democrats putting aside the bickering and putting aside the partisanship and saying these are the big things that we have to fix. This isn’t about the next election, this is about the next generation.”
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the proposal’s sponsor in the upper house, and a ironworker’s union leaders, opened the hearing. “When I wake up in the morning, I wake up as a labor leader. I make my living as a labor leader. My business cards have union bugs on them and my car is American made. My life is union.
“At the same time, in my capacity as Senate President, I am also responsible to the taxpayers of this state,” the senator said. “I would never do anything to hurt a working person, nor would I wish to inject further damage among New Jersey’s already overtaxed middle and low income workers.
“That is why five years ago, I announced sweeping public employee benefits reform to fix a broken system,” Sweeney said. “I was immediately protested, picketed, threatened, and shouted down by my own party. “Reform was the right thing to do then, just as reform is the right thing to do now.”
Union members in the crowded hearing room jeered and hurled insults at Christie, calling him a "turncoat" and a “disgrace."
Under the compromise legislation, public employees with 20 years of service would lock in their retirement benefits. The bill shifts more pension and health benefit costs onto public workers. Union leaders argue the action interferes with the right to collective bargaining.
According to proponents, making public employees pay more for their health coverage would save the state less than $10 million next year, significantly less than the $300 million the Christie initially maintained.
Sarlo and Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) called upon Sweeney to separate the the pension and health benefits’ issues. They said there is support for pension reform but not legislating health benefits among the majority of Democrats.
After the hearing, state Democratic chairman Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) joined in urging Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) to split the bills. "...Pension reform and health benefit reform are two different discussions and should be contained within two different pieces of legislation," they said. “We believe that the governor and Legislature must make every effort to work towards consensus with all involved to ensure the final product is in its spirit and letter, truly reflective of meaningful discussion and compromise. To do otherwise would undermine the efforts for reform.”
During his testimony, Bob Master, political director for the Communications Workers of America, the largest public employee union, blasted the bill. Master charged that Sweeney and the Democrats of abandoning middle-class principles and betraying their base. He called them "Christie-Democrats."
When protesters in the room refused Sarlo’s demands to be quiet, State Police escorted them from the room. They chanted "workers' rights are human rights."
Vincent Giordano, New Jersey Education Association director, described the legislation as “an anchor around the necks of teachers." He added, “You can't turn the collective bargaining process on and off like water."
Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey Firefighter's Mutual Benevolent, urged the committee to defeat the bill. He said that unlike the state government, police officers and firefighters have made their pension payments and their fund is solvent. He said firefighters risk their lives daily and health benefits are necessary.
Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins spoke on behalf of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities in support of the legislation, saying pension and health benefit costs are one of the main cost drivers for municipal budgets.
“Since the passage of the two percent hard (municipal budget) cap last July, nearly every municipality in the state has undergone a budget process without the overwhelming majority of the management reforms that were promised,” Hawkins said. “Many have been forced to severely reduce vital services, including public personnel reductions, and make other difficult and often draconian budget choices.
“Pension and health care reforms are very difficult issues to tackle in a manner that ensures the financial solvency of the pension systems so they will exist in the future without over burdening municipalities and tax payers,” Hawkins said. “We applaud the efforts of those who can craft such legislation which would accomplish this while protecting our current retirees and grandfathering those eligible for retirement by not breaking our commitment to them.”