Christie Pushes Through 'Gutsy' Jersey Pension Reforms

Thursday, 16 Jun 2011 05:49 PM

 

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and legislative leaders agreed to raise government workers’ payments for pensions and health care, as unions protested and three high-ranked Democrats pledged to vote against the plan.

Christie, a first-term Republican, said late yesterday that he would back a measure pending in the Senate. Lawmakers began debating the bill in the Senate Budget Committee today as thousands of employees picketed outside the Statehouse.

“These reforms are needed now, we have a pension system that is in crisis and teetering on the brink of collapse,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, an official in an ironworkers union, said during testimony on the bill. “The taxpayers are tapped out, and we can’t go down that road anymore.”

Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, both Democrats, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, two Republicans, were named in the statement announcing the accord. The full Senate will vote on the measure June 20, followed a week later by the Assembly, and passage is expected by the June 30 end of the fiscal year, they said.

Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan said they oppose the measure because it would gut workers’ collective-bargaining rights. Buono, from Metuchen, said she doesn’t support packaging health- care and pension changes in one bill.

‘Kill This Bill’

Union members hissed and booed as Sweeney, who is sponsoring the measure in the Senate, testified. “You’re not my brother,” one person yelled, a reference to his union position. The hearing was later delayed after state police led out two dozen union members who chanted “union rights are human rights” and “kill this bill” as Bob Master, political director for the Communications Workers of America, spoke against the measure.

“Real Democrats would have killed this bill,” Master said. His union represents about 40,000 state workers and is the largest union for New Jersey government employees. The organization has been pushing for any changes in its members’ health-care contributions to be done through collective bargaining, not legislation.

Higher Costs

The proposal pending in the Legislature would overhaul pensions by raising the retirement age to 65 and freezing cost- of-living raises. Workers would also contribute as much as 35 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums based on income, up from 1.5 percent of salaries currently.

Christie has said changes are needed to shrink New Jersey’s pension deficit, which increased 18 percent in a year to $53.9 billion as of June 30 as the state failed to make contributions for most of the past decade. Christie skipped a $3 billion payment last year. He will make a $759 million contribution once lawmakers approve the benefits overhaul, Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said last month.

The changes will make New Jersey more affordable for businesses and residents and help control municipalities’ personnel costs, which have driven up property taxes, Christie, 48, told business leaders at a conference last night.

“What this legislation will do will be simply to save the pension system for all of those retirees and public workers who are counting on it,” Christie said. “The only way to do that is to control spending -- there is no magic wand. But affordability comes at a price: There are choices to be made and sacrifices to share.”

Sunset Provision

The accord includes a provision sought by Assembly Democrats to let unions seek lower health-insurance payments for members after four years, said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican budget official. O’Scanlon, of Red Bank, said he preferred not to have it in the accord Christie accepted.

“This will be the most significant and gutsy reform in at least 20 years,” said O’Scanlon. “It’s really essential to stop New Jersey from reaching the point of no return.”

The business group gave Christie a standing ovation when he announced the accord. Union leaders condemned the agreement.

“We expected this from Governor Christie, but we did not expect so-called Democratic leaders to abandon working families,” Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the Communications Workers of America, said in a statement yesterday.

Abandoning Workers

State police said at least 3,000 government workers, police officers and firefighters assembled outside the capitol annex where the budget panel was meeting. Cars driving below the speed limit choked traffic on Route 29, a main conduit into Trenton, as unions urged workers to do so in an attempt to make lawmakers late to the Statehouse.

Rosenstein’s union was granted a permit for 5,000 people to demonstrate in front of the Statehouse Annex office building where the vote was to occur, Sergeant Brian Polite, a spokesman, said by telephone.

“We’ve heard a lot of lip service about collective bargaining from members of the Legislature, but they’re ramming health care at us,” said Sherryl Gordon, executive director of New Jersey Council 1 of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

“Never in the history of our state” have lawmakers passed a bill as detrimental to workers, she said.

Bill Lavin, president of the Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association, said the freeze on pension raises would prove harsh for retired workers.

“It’s absolutely a betrayal by government of people who put their lives on the line every day,” Lavin, an Elizabeth firefighter, said in an interview. “This gets us on a course to have an ever-declining standard of living for the rest of our lives.”


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