Flashpoint: Out-of-state provision sends Ramos packing on reform deal

TRENTON – It was the last straw for Assemblyman Ruben Ramos, (D-33), of Hoboken, according to sources close to the lawmaker. On Thursday, he will break with his political godfather and vote against the landmark pension and benefit reform package.

The reasons, sources said, are political but also very personal to Ramos, and get to the heart of one of the contentious issues in this pension and benefits reform: The ethics of denying a patient out-of-state care.

Ramos’ wagons have been hitched to state Sen. Brian Stack, (D-33), of Union City, since Stack’s ascension to Trenton. In 2007, Ramos joined Stack’s ticket to take on the Hudson County Democratic Organization. They won and, since then, Stack has strengthened his formidable political base in the county, so much so that he was the top vote-getter by far across the state in the June primary this year.

Ramos has been asked by Stack to vote for measures Ramos considers politically unsavory time and time again, including the public employee benefit reform  Gov. Chris Christie and state Sen. President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, are moving through the Legislature this week.

Last year Ramos, a social studies teacher at P.S. 15 in Paterson, had to grin and bear a vote for Christie’s budget that made severe cuts to school aid, a budget that landed some of Ramos’ co-workers in the unemployment line.

The Hoboken lawmaker voted for reforms to public employee sick leave, pensions, and benefits that highlighted Christie’s first-year agenda.

Ramos had been a good soldier for Stack, who is very close with the Republican governor, by providing a Democratic lower chamber vote alongside former district-mate Caridad Rodriguez, who vacated her Assembly seat after she was elected to the Board of Commissioners in West New York last month. With Rodriguez gone, Stack’s power to deliver votes for the governor has been cut in half, making Ramos’ vote that much more important.

But the latest pill that Stack and Christie asked Ramos to swallow may be the last one, sources close to Ramos said. Ramos is a cancer survivor who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease in 1999, for which he underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in Manhattan, a highly-regarded cancer center.

So when the Christie-Sweeney reform bill provision restricting out-of-state care was publicly aired out last week, Ramos decided privately that he would not be voting for the bill. The problem was, sources said, that Stack had already promised Ramos’ vote to Christie. When PolitickerNJ reported last week that Ramos was planning to vote against the reform bill (which was reported through sources, not from Ramos), insiders said Christie immediately turned to Stack to find out why Ramos’ vote came off the board.

According to sources close to the issue, Christie upbraided Stack, who in turn prevailed on Ramos to change his mind, including by guaranteeing the out-of-state provision in question would be amended, as it was in a separate bill this week.

The problem Ramos had was that he was already opposed in principle to the reform bill – just like he was on the budget last year. The fact that Stack blindly promised his vote to Christie without consulting the assemblyman only compounded his frustration, the sources said. Nonetheless, with an amendment promised, Ramos told Christie on Monday that he would vote for the reform bill.

Once the language in the amendment was released, though, Ramos again questioned his decision. The out-of-state fix that Sweeney and Christie came to agreement on did not necessarily remove the restrictions on out-of-state care, but rather requires a doctor to certify that there is a “reasonable” need and that the same type of care is not available in New Jersey.

The fix wasn’t good enough for Ramos, and sources Tuesday confirmed that he will not be voting in favor of the reform bill on Thursday.

Staff for both Ramos and Stack declined comment on the story, and a representative of the Governor’s Office did not return calls for comment.

There is political upside for Ramos. If he plans to run for mayor of Hoboken in two years, which is a persistent rumor, it would be more important for Ramos to distinguish himself from Stack and current Mayor Dawn Zimmer, both vocal supporters of Christie, rather than continuing to maintain his close relationship with Stack, who wouldn’t be much help in a city-wide contest, a source in the district claimed. The public workers who religiously show up on Election Day are Ramos’ target audience now, the source said.

Since Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), of East Orange, has the votes to deliver the reform package, it was unclear to Trenton observers why Christie, Oliver, or Stack needed to press for Ramos’ vote. The sources speculated that Stack wanted to prove his ability to bring Ramos along, while Christie and Oliver wanted to avoid the landslide effect of other locked-in votes being reconsidered at the last minute. Flashpoint: Out-of-state provision sends Ramos packing on reform deal