Sweeney, Christie working on pension/benefit reform without Assembly

TRENTON – Representatives for Gov. Chris Christie and state Sen. President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, were trying to hash out an agreement over health care and pension reform today, but no finished product emerged, according to several statehouse sources.

Denying a deal is in place and not divulging that any special meeting occurred today, Sweeney’s spokesman Chris Donnelly said these discussions have been ongoing and will continue. Christie’s spokesman Kevin Roberts was not reached for comment.

The push-ahead by Sweeney on the reforms, according to sources in Trenton, shows his willingness to find accord with the governor separate from any negotiations the Senate president is having with Assembly leaders, including Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), of East Orange.

Assembly spokesman Tom Hester Jr. said, “The Assembly has no comment on any talks between the Senate and the Republican governor but is increasingly frustrated by the governor’s failure to do his job as chief executive and begin serious collective bargaining with the workers to reach an agreement that protects taxpayers.”

A source close to the Assembly leadership said the lower chamber is working with unions to try to find savings similar to those represented in the legislative reforms, some of which are addressed through creating incentives for cost-efficient health management by employees, rather than simply hiking contributions and hoping costs are controlled. Some measures being discussed to keep costs down while providing the same service include minimizing emergency room visits for non-emergent medical needs, reconfiguring prescription benefits, and bumping up co-pays.

Several sources said the rank-and-file in the lower chamber are not conceding the legislative route yet, but a counter-proposal is being prepared just in case, one source said. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) presented a health care concession package to Christie on Day 1 of negotiations, only to be dismissed. At a minimum, the Assembly Dems want to see a bill that resembles the CWA offer; that way, said a Democratic source, if reform legislation is passed, the unions could find some public vindication that bargaining is a workable model.

Under the CWA offer, their 40,000 state workers would triple their current contribution rate, raise premium payments, and increase co-pays for doctor visits and prescription drugs. The average worker would pay almost 14 percent of the health care costs, saving over $200 million in the final year of a four-year contract, according to the union.

“Their offer stinks,” Christie told the press in April. His plan is estimated to save more than $300 million each year, including FY12, which begins in 41 days.

Christie wants workers to pay 30 percent of their health care premium costs (8.5 percent of their salary) – based loosely on the federal plan that he had as a U.S. Attorney – by the plan’s third year, netting $871 million, according to the front office.

Sweeney’s plan includes a salary index, maxing-out at 30 percent of premium for top-earners, after a seven-year rollout. But low-earners only contribute 12 percent in the final year under Sweeney’s plan. It would save $200 million after seven years, according to the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services, but only $21.8 million in FY12.

Sweeney is expected to combine his two reform bills into one piece of legislation as the negotiation process wraps. Sources expect that Sweeney and Christie will find common ground, then Sweeney will proceed to negotiate that arrangement with the Assembly. Sources close to leadership said it is still unclear what the lower chamber will do then; they could block reform, assert influence over the Sweeney/Christie plan, or pass their own legislation.

Sweeney, Christie working on pension/benefit reform without Assembly