Senate passes state worker pension reform measures; Legislature passes budget

TRENTON – With a majority arguing that the state pension system needs to get onbetter financial footing, the Senate tonight passed a package ofstate worker pension reforms by a vote of 30-8.

Sen. Stephen Sweeney of South Jersey introduced the controversialproposal in what he described as a bipartisan vein.

“I make my living as a union leader,” Sweeney told the Senate chamber. “You can go out of business if you don’t manage your funds properly. These are modest not major reforms.”

The reforms raise the retirement age of future state workers from 60 to 62, and require future state workersto make a minimum of $7,500 to qualify for a state pension.

Republicans backedSweeneywith the exception of Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Mercer).

Sen. Minority Leader Thomas Kean (R-Union) thanked Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) for posting the bill and Budget Committee Chair Barbara Buono for getting it out of committee.

“I hope the conversation goes on, ona bipartisan basis,” said Kean. “We have important work to do to make sure individuals are not gaming the system.”

Senators Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) and Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) noted that the reformsare necessary to help teachers and other state workers who put in at least 20 hours per week.

Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon) said the pension fund began losing solvency 11 years ago when the Legislature borrowed $3 billion from the fund against a8% rate of return that could not be sustained.

“We did not put money into the pension system for nine years,” said Lance.

In voting against the reforms, Senate Presdient Pro Tempore Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Senator Ronald Rice (D-Essex) argued that the Legislature’s mistake should not be corrected by now punishing part-time workers.

“This is a high income state,” said Turner. “We are widening the gap between the rich and the poor. …You cannot make those who sacrifice the most continue to make the sacrifice.”

Having already passed the $32.9 billion state budget by a 45-34 vote, the Assembly is scheduled to consider the pension reform measures later this evening.

Following passage of a $3.9 billion schools construction plan, the Senate also signed off on the state budget by a vote of 23-16.

In a statement, Codey said, “This budget clearly reflects the reality of our fiscal situation. Much like millions of Americans across the country, we have to do more with less. This budget required a lot of painful decisions, decisions nobody really wants to make but that had to be done.

“The size of this year’s budget reflects the will of the people who made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that they want their government to make cuts, much like many of them are being forced to do,” added the senate president.

UPDATE at 11:28 p.m: The Star-Ledger reports that the Assembly also passed the pension reforms by a vote of 54-13, with 12 abstentions.