TRENTON – For Week in Review, this week seemingly came down to one day in review: Thursday.
Emotions ran high, inside and outside the Statehouse, on Thursday regarding the proposed pension and health benefits reform plan.
While inside a packed hearing room the Senate Budget Committee deliberated over the proposal that will reshape how public workers pay for health insurance and for their retirement, thousands of union forces demonstrated outside. During the hearing approximately 25 union forces were escorted from the room by State Police after disrupting proceedings with chants of “Kill the bill.’’
The pro-labor rally outside on West State Street had a high-pitched tone, with thousands of public workers chanting “kill the bill” and portraying the Democrats as a divided force, picking out what they called the “Real Democrats” to stir up the crowd.
In the end, though, all Republicans and a handful of Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee moved forward in adopting by a 9-4 vote Senate bill S2937.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. President Steve Sweeney, is expected to save some $10 million in the first year, according to the state Treasury Department.
Among other things, the bill creates two new committees, one for the state Health Benefits Program and one for the School Employees’ Health Benefits Program, with the members selected by the governor and unions.
The bill also contains a “sunset” provision so that “The provisions concerning contributions for health care benefits will expire four years after the effective date.”
The bill mandates that every employee must pay at least 1.5 percent of their salary toward their benefits.
Pension contributions will rise from 5.5 to 6.5 percent, plus an additional 1 percent will be phased in over seven years beginning in the first year.
A few hours after the committee’s vote Sweeney said he has “more than enough” votes to get it passed by the full Senate.
Christie, who was in Atlantic City for a conference that day, said that Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver took brave stands in agreeing to overhaul pension and health care benefits, adding that the reform plan will serve as a national model.
However, there was a lot more going on in the Statehouse this week as well.
On Monday, the Assembly Health Committee unanimously released a bill that would require health insurance companies to cover oral cancer drugs. Presently, insurance companies cover intravenous cancer drugs.
Despite opposition from such groups as the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, which argued the legislation could place a great financial burden on employers who have to provide health insurance for their workers, the committee unanimously voted to release bill A2666.
Committee Chairman Herb Conaway, (D-7), Delran said the cost differences between the drugs are small.
While reforming the pension/health benefits system is expected to save money, another step toward purported savings for taxpayers – sharing services among towns – also advanced.
The Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee released bill S2794. This would require the state’s Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization, and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC) to study government units (county government, municipal government, school districts) to find areas of possible taxpayer savings through sharing of services. Savings proposals would be put before those towns’ voters in a public referendum. If the vote fails, those towns could lose state aid in an amount equal to what they would have saved had they shared the service, according to the bill.
If one town approves such a savings proposal but another denies it, only the town that denied it would lose state financial assistance.
Urban Enterprise Zones
Two bills were released that, among other big changes, call for ending the Urban Enterprise Zones in 10 years.
Facing the reality that Gov. Christie is reluctant to support the program that enables businesses to charge half of the state’s 7 percent sales tax unless it’s revamped, the Assembly Commerce Committee released UEZ reform bills in response.
Among the proposed changes included in the bills – A4104 and A4105 – are:
1.) Capping the administrative costs to 10 percent of the overall UEZ funds that are awarded to the town.
2.) Phasing out funding over several years, getting it down to 33 percent of what a town currently gets (example: a town that receives $1 million in UEZ funds would eventually only receive $330,000).
3.) Banning the use of UEZ funds for traditional municipal services, such as hiring police officers.
4.) Requiring grant applications, instead of towns being entitled to the funds.
Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, (D-29), of Newark, who is the chairman of the Commerce Committee, said the recommendations are intended to make a good program better.
The problem of youths using alternatives to so-called “traditional drugs” was discussed.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee released bill A3984, which would make using chemicals found in bath salts for drug-related purposes a crime. This bill would make it a third-degree crime to possess, manufacture, distribute or dispense, or to possess or have under one’s control with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense products containing: 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone, 4-MMC); 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV); 3,4-methylenedioxymethcathinone (methylone, MDMC), 4-methoxymethcathinone (methedrone, bk-PMMA, PMMC); 3-fluoromethcathinone (3-FMC); or 4-fluoromethcathinone (flephedrone, 4-FMC).
A third-degree crime is punishable by a three- to five-year imprisonment term, a $15,000 fine, or both.
The full Senate recently passed a similar bill.
While no legislation was passed on another drug problem – the abuse of prescription drugs, especially by young people – investigators told the State Commission of Investigation during a hearing that the problem is growing and could lead to abusers of prescription drugs using heroin as a cheaper alternative.
Three pieces of legislation designed to keep New Jersey part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cleared the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee Thursday and will be dealt with next week in a Senate committee.
Eventually, push will come to shove because Gov. Christie has said he does not need legislative approval to remove the state from the emissions-reduction program.
And Gov. Christie’s much-publicized helicopter trip to watch his son’s baseball game was dealt with in a committee hearing Tuesday, with State Police Supt. Col. Rick Fuentes defending how the governor is transported and how the state police use the helicopters.
Christie had already said he will reimburse the state for the cost of the trip, and although Democrats weighed in with a lot of criticism at the time of the incident, the hearing this week seemed a bit anti-climactic.