TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie said today the goal for the arbitration reform bill was to “turn around a system that for 40 years has been leading to extraordinary excess.”
He said of the exemption of health benefits and pensions from the arbitration cap, “Those are (costs), at the moment, that are outside the (control) of the municipality. I don’t think we can include that fairly under the cap if we don’t deal with the problem…The pension and benefits were never part of the toolkit.”
But the issues will be back next year. “I would not have made this agreement if I didn’t have an agreement with these folks standing up here (to push legislation) on pension and benefits (next year),” he said.
There is no cap on any contract agreements reached outside of arbitration, so if the two sides can reach an agreement outside of arbitration, they can exceed the 2 percent arbitration cap.
“It’s been one hell of a journey,” state Sen. Pres. Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said of the resulting legislation. “This is compromise, but it’s also revolutionary… We have taken a process from the 1900s, I think, and we’ve put it into the future.”
A six-member task force will return an evaluation of the reform three months before the law expires in April of 2013.
In the meantime, “If we see folks who are gaming the system, we have committed to each other that we will come back together and fix the problems,” Christie said.
Minority Leader Sen. Tom Kean (R-Westfield) called it a “win for taxpayers and public servants, alike.”
The bill puts the squeeze on arbitrators by setting a hard deadline for awards, by implementing a penalty for late awards, and by capping their pay at $1,000 per day and $7,500 per case.
Christie said there will “no longer be an incentive for arbitrators to run endless meetings,” on taxpayer dime. The bill also increases the ethical standards for arbitrators, and creates a random selection process.
“We’re not going to let arbitrators make fortunes off (of) government. That was a business…I think the term was called ‘churning,’ ” Sweeney said.
No extensions are available for the 45 day deadline for awards, and all appeals must be filed within 30 days.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) said, “This is just an additional building block in terms of what has occurred as far as the entire legislative year.”
As far as the remaining big-ticket toolkit item – civil service reform – Christie said, “We’re talking. We’re talking. We’ll see…If we can reach an agreement on meaningful civil service reform, I’d be glad to sign (it into law). Tomorrow we’ll turn to that.”