Roundup: Week of June 20

The Battle of Trenton (Pension/Health Benefits)

TRENTON – The basic relationship between public workers and their employer – state government – underwent momentous change this week first at the hands of the Senate and then at the hands of the Assembly.

Before it was all over, thousands of workers took to the streets outside the Statehouse for the second and third times in the span of seven days, and lawmakers weighed in with emotional speeches for and against the changes.

When it was over, public employees were looking at a changed landscape demanding higher contributions to their pensions and health benefits.

After hours of delay, followed by passionate testimony, the health and pensions benefit reform bill (A4133) passed its next to last hurdle a little before 9 p.m. Thursday in the Assembly with all Republicans and a core group of Democrats supporting it.

The legislation was a flashpoint for many of the union members – teachers, police officers, firefighters, judges, among others – as they took to the streets again by the thousands on Thursday afternoon, chanting “Kill the Bill” and “Don’t Legislate, Negotiate.’’

On Monday, the state Senate had passed its version, S2937, by a similar configuration – all Republicans approving, coupled with a handful of Democrats. And all the while thousands of union protesters demonstrated loudly along State Street outside the Statehouse.

At Thursday’s Assembly session, some of the most liberal members of the Assembly – such as Majority Leader Joe Cryan, (D-20), of Union Township; Elease Evans, (D-35), of Paterson; and John Wisniewski, (D-19), of Sayreville – decried the bill as basically a tax on working-class families and the death of collective bargaining. The bill requires collective bargaining to resume in four years, as its sunset clause dictates.

Regarding health insurance, public employees will pay more, with the amount dependent on their salaries.

But all public employees will be required to make higher contributions toward their “defined benefit plans,” as Assemblyman Jay Webber, (R-26), Passaic, termed them for traditional pensions.

Because the Assembly tweaked the bill by removing out-of-state restrictions, the Senate on Monday will have to vote on that portion before the bill heads to the governor’s desk for a signature.

The Battle Over NJN

Democrats are fighting for the future of New Jersey Network.

The Assembly voted Thursday, along party lines, 45-30, on a resolution disapproving the controversial contract to transfer the long-time public television network’s operations to New York-based WNET.

The resolution was sponsored by Patrick Diegnan, (D-18), of South Plainfield, who said the deal to transfer the state-centric network’s operations to an out-of-state entity “just doesn’t make sense.”

It’s not clear if the resolution, along with a sister bill that will be considered Monday by the state Senate, will halt the proposed deal worked out by the state with WNET from taking effect before the end of the month, but Democrats are confident they can put the brakes to this changeover.

However, in testimony this week before the Senate Budget Committee, Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff warned that any delay to the deal would mean “the death of NJN as we know it.’’

That does not mean the station would go dark, because it must continue broadcasting in accordance with its license, the treasurer explained, but there would be substantial differences, he warned.

The Battle Over the Environment

It may not have received the same level of attention as the union protests going on at the same time, but a coalition of environmentalists, religious and labor leaders, and like-minded state legislators held a rally on the Statehouse steps Monday over what they see as Gov. Christie’s relentless attacks on the environment.

They listed a series of setbacks: Pulling the state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative; a new Energy Master Plan that emphasizes less renewable sources of energy in favor of more gas-fired plants and a new nuclear plant; the pursuit of the controversial process of fracturing; restricted beach access in some areas; and the Department of Environmental Protection waiver rule, among others.

Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director for Environment New Jersey, said at the rally, “We want to send a clear message to Governor Christie and others who would undo more than a decade of protections for our air, land and water that New Jerseyans want to move forward for a cleaner and healthier future, not backward.”

Toward that end there is a package of bills to keep the state from exiting RGGI that have cleared committees and are working their way toward votes.

An Emotional Veto

More than a month after it was passed by the Legislature, the Adoptees Rights bill was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday afternoon, to the dismay of the bills’ sponsors.

Christie said the bill needs to do more to preserve the anonymity of the birth parent. His preference is for a compromise in which a neutral third-party would make the decision whether to release birth parent information on a case-by-case basis.

Its backers were dismayed. Sen. Diane Allen, (R-7), of Burlington, said she viewed the conditional veto as “a personal loss” given all the years she worked on putting together the legislation.

  Roundup: Week of June 20