With virtually no support from the Assembly Democratic majority for a compromise plan by Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney to make New Jersey’s 500,000 public employees pay more for their health and pension benefits, Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) on Friday offered her own proposal.
Oliver is proposing that public employees to pay more for health benefits for the next three years and then allow them to negotiate costs in 2014. Her proposal would allow public employee unions to seek lower contribution rates during contract talks in 2014 rather than having them mandated by Christie and the Legislature.
Union leaders and rank and file Democratic legislators oppose mandating that public employees pay more for their health benefits and Oliver is hoping that the protection of collective bargaining rights will win them over. Oliver met with Christie and several legislators on Friday but declined to comment to reporters.
A so-called sunset provision in Oliver’s proposal would come in the same year that the national health care reform will be largely in effect. It also would come the year after Christie would presumably face reelection, insuring that collective bargaining rights for union members would be a 2013 gubernatorial campaign issue.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Christie have agreed on a plan to overhaul public employee health and pension benefits, and Sweeney plans to introduce the bill before it is scheduled for a hearing on Thursday.
But facing lack of support among fellow Senate Democrats, Sweeney is relying on Republicans to move the bill out of the Senate.
Robert Master, district political director for the Communications Workers of America, the state’s largest public employee union, told The Star-Ledger that while he is opposed to Oliver’s plan, he liked it better than the one put forward by Sweeney.
"The Sweeney-Christie plan is bad policy that does nothing to control runaway health care costs, destroys collective bargaining and is simply unaffordable for middle-class workers," Master told the Star-Ledger. "Sheila Oliver’s sunset provision makes the bad policy temporary, which is an improvement. But the substance of the legislation still represents a fundamental betrayal of Democratic values, and it must be rejected."
Oliver has pledged not to try to move the Christie-Sweeney compromise bill in the Assembly without significant Democratic support. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) plans to have the upper Budget Committee consider the compromise bill on Thursday.
The Christie-Sweeney compromise would require public employees to chip in more of their salaries in help bailout the financially-struggling state pension system and give up annual cost-of-living increases. New workers would have to work longer to be eligible for benefits. Employees would also pay a percentage of their health-care premiums in a tiered system based on their salary.
Sweeney maintains the compromise bill would save $120 billion and stabilize the pension funds within 30 years. State and local governments have promised $66.7 billion in health benefits to current and future retirees — the highest price tag among the 50 states — but has not set aside a single penny to pay for it. At the same time, the state pension fund has about 66 percent of the assets needed to meet its future pension obligations, ranking it among the worst-funded in the nation.
— TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM