Christie, legislative leaders, announce agreement on pension and health benefit reform

In a joint statement with Gov. Chris Christie, Republican and Democratic leadership from both houses of the legislature said Wednesday they have reached an agreement on pension and health benefit reform and will work to see it enacted no later than June 30.

“After months of serious discussions, we are pleased to announce that we have reached agreement on legislation to reform our public pension and health benefits systems in New Jersey,” the statement from Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver,  Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce said.

“The legislation to be considered tomorrow by the Senate Budget Committee and Monday by the Assembly Budget Committee protects taxpayers, saves the public pension system for current and future retirees, and enhances fairness and choice in our health benefits system.

“We all fully support this legislation and will work together to assure its passage by both houses of the Legislature and enactment into law no later than June 30, 2011.”

While the statement provided no details of the agreement, it did mark Oliver’s first statement in full support of the bill that has caused upheaval among Democrats throughout the state.  Previously, the assembly speaker has said she cannot support the bill without strong support from her caucus.  Tuesday, Oliver agreed to post the bill for a hearing Monday before the assembly budget committee, but stopped short of getting fully behind the legislation.

“I continue to work to bring everyone together on a plan that protects taxpayers and worker rights, and I am yet not committing to putting the bill up for a full Assembly vote as we continue discussions,”  Oliver said Tuesday in announcing her decision to allow a committee hearing.

It’s unknown if the agreement includes the sunset provision that Oliver has pushed in an effort to get unions on board. 

But even as leadership touted its agreement with the governor, the Democratic caucus seemed to be coming apart at the seams.  Democrats acorss the state, including the chairs of three county parties, rushed to distance themselves from the health benefits portion of the bill, saying the party had always stood up for collective bargaining rights and should continue to do so.

Leaders in Union, Passaic and Hudson County issued statements throughout the day saying the pension reform bill should be a separate piece of legislation, while health benefits should be left to collective bargaining.

Closer to Trenton, members of both houses criticized the bill and its devastating affect on the party and its traditional supporters.

“We were dismayed to learn that this Monday the Assembly Budget Committee will be hearing a bill which will forever alter the way of life of NJ’s low-income and middle class workers,” said a statement from Bergen County Assembly Representatives Valerie Vainieri Huttle(D- 37), Gordon Johnson(D- 37), Joan Voss(D- 38) and Connie Wagner(D-38). 

“Our Democratic Party principles are to stand with the working families that unions represent.  Public workers, teachers, police officers, firefighters and the many other employees who dedicate themselves to our state, deserve a seat at the bargaining table to decide their own fate.  These people are New Jersey.  We must continue to preserve their fundamental right to collectively bargain.”

The bill has pitted party members against each other and has set the state’s largest teachers union on a course to derail Sweeney.  Privately, members are questioning the leadership of both Sweeney and Oliver as well as the wisdom of pushing such controversial legislation less than five months before the November mid-term elections when all 120 seats in both houses will be up for grabs.

“The governor must be sitting in his office and laughing,” said one legislator, adding that Christie couldn’t have done more damage if he rolled a hand grenade into the chamber.

The legislation, which would increase public employees’ contributions to health and pension benefits, is likely to pass in both houses.  Republicans will make up the bulk of the ‘aye’ votes while a coalition of South Jersey and Essex County Democrats will provide the balance, sources tell PolitickerNJ.  Sweeney will likely need support from just five Democrats in the senate, while Oliver will need just eight members of her caucus to vote in favor of the plan. Christie, legislative leaders, announce agreement on pension and health benefit reform