Under Sweeney’s leadership, Senate approves seminal public employee benefit reform

TRENTON – After years of vigorous debate and weeks of stirring protest, the state Senate passed landmark pension and benefit reform for public workers, which had the backing of Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic majority leaders state Sen. Steve Sweeney (D-3), of West Deptford, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), of East Orange.

The upper chamber approved the pension and benefit reform legislation, 24-15. State Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-28), of Newark, did not vote.

“This is not about philosophy. It’s not about ideology,” said state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13), of Middletown. “It’s about practicality. It’s about sustaining the enterprise. It’s a math problem.”

The pension reform increases worker contributions based on salary, seats more labor on pension boards, eliminates cost of living increases, and legally requires state pension contributions.

The health care reform also increases contributions based on salary through premium shares, includes employers and employees in plan design processes, allows for local control provided there is equal cost savings, and allows for collective bargaining of health care to resume after a four-year contribution ramp-up.

The reform bill also raises the retirement age for future employees to 65, and raises early retirement to 30 years of service.

The bill also eliminates a pension loophole that allows elected officials to collect a pension while continuing to serve in their position.

Sponsoring the bill and shepherding it to passage in the upper chamber, Sweeney made a few adjustments to the bill, including to two provisions that were criticized for being beneficial to political ally George Norcross III. The first provision would have barred further entrants into the state health care plan, while the second would have severely restricted beneficiaries from receiving out-of-state care. The first provision was removed by Sweeney after public scrutiny; the second provision was legislatively removed when the Senate passed a separate bill in their session today.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-12), of Red Bank, who was an early co-sponsor on Sweeney’s reform bill, said the legislation makes the cost sharing and decision making for public employee health care and pensions more equal.

“Without these changes that pension system cannot survive,” she said, “and the health benefits are not far behind…We don’t have many choices and we frankly do not have much time.”

Opposing the bill, state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14), of Plainsboro, said, “Collective bargaining is a basic human right.” She faults the governor for not wanting to bargain for health care benefits.

Public workers have been “vilified,” she said, for an economic downturn that is a “result of a runaway financial sector. Unions were agreeable to pension reform, she said, but, “including health benefits (in the bill) crosses the line.”

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1), of Dennis Township, said that although the state and politicians are mostly to blame for failing systems that necessitated the reforms, “We are where we are.” Van Drew said he supports collective bargaining, and that the bill ensures a future for these negotiations. “These are difficult times and these are tough choices,” he said.

It could have been worse for public employees, he said, like a proposed rollback of a 9 percent pension hike that Gov. Chris Christie championed.

State Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32), of North Bergen, said he is worried about retirees collecting $30,000 in their pension who now will not receive a cost of living increase, which state Sen. John Girgenti (D-35), of Hawthorne, said could drive some retirees into poverty.

Supporting the bill, state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-5), of Camden, said, “My labor credentials are second to none in this room, but we face an unprecedented crisis…The easy thing for me to do is to tell people what they want to hear.” He didn’t do that, Norcross said, and made sure that a sunset clause restoring collective bargaining – an amendment put forth by Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), of East Orange – was included.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36), of Wood-Ridge, appreciated the requirement for state pension payments, but couldn’t understand the historic value of legislation that has a minimal impact this coming year. “We’re only seeing $9 million (in the first year),” Sarlo said. “It’s just an attack on the collective bargaining process.”

The reforms, Kyrillos said, “will serve as a model for America.”

Voting in favor of the reforms: Dawn Marie Addiego (R-8), of Evesham; Diane Allen (R-7), of Edgewater Park; Kip Bateman (R-16), of Branchburg; Jim Beach (D-6), of Voorhees; Jennifer Beck (R-12), of Red Bank; Tony Bucco (R-25), of Boonton; Gerry Cardinale (R-39), of Demarest; Andy Ciesla (R-10), of Brick; Christopher Connors (R-9), of Lacey Twp.; Mike Doherty (R-23), of Washington Twp.; Sean Kean (R-11), of Wall; Tom Kean Jr. (R-21), of Westfield; Joe Kyrillos (R-13), of Middletown; Fred Madden (D-4), of Washington Twp.; Donald Norcross (D-5), of Camden; Kevin O’Toole (R-40), of Cedar Grove; Steve Oroho (R-24), of Franklin Twp.; Joe Pennacchio (R-26), of Pine Brook; M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), of Newark; Robert Singer (R-30), of Lakewood; Brian Stack (D-33), of Union City; Steve Sweeney (D-3), of West Deptford; Jeff Van Drew (D-1), of Dennis Twp.; and Jim Whelan (D-2), Atlantic City,

Voting against the reforms: Barbara Buono (D-18), of Metuchen; Richard Codey (D-27), of Roseland; Sandra Cunningham (D-31), of Jersey City; Nia Gill (D-24), of Montclair; John Girgenti (D-35), of Hawthorne; Robert Gordon (D-38), of Fair Lawn; Linda Greenstein (D-14), of Plainsboro; Ray Lesniak (D-20), of Elizabeth; Nick Sacco (D-32), of North Bergen; Paul Sarlo (D-36), of Wood-Ridge; Nicholas Scutari (D-22), of Linden; Bob Smith (D-17), of Piscataway; Shirley Turner (D-15), of Lawrenceville; Joe Vitale (D-19), of Woodbridge; and Loretta Weinberg (D-37), of Teaneck.

Under Sweeney’s leadership, Senate approves seminal public employee benefit reform