Senate committee passes pension and benefits legislation

After hours of emotional testimony, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legislation that will sharply increase public employee’s contributions to pension and health benefits.

The committee voted 9 to 4 in favor of the bill, with Democratic Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-36), Linda Greenstein (D-14), Barbara Buono (D-18) and Sandra Cunningham (D-31) voting against the measure.

Greenstein said, “The reason for my vote, plain and simple, is collective bargaining.”

She said labor negotiations are “sacred,” and turned the spotlight away from her legislative leaders.

“I fault Gov. Christie here for refusing to bargain with these workers,” she said, although the governor ultimately did negotiate health care with the union.

She said, “Refusing to bargain…put our caucus, even Sen. Sweeney, into a (tough position) to act on this.”

Even though he opposed the bill, Sarlo said Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-3), of West Deptford, had come a long way having been calling for the pension and benefit overhaul for years.

“He’s come a long way,” Sarlo said. “With regard to collective bargaining, I stop there.”

The vote broke along party and geographic lines as all five Republican committee members voted in favor along with South Jersey Sens. Jim Beach (D-6) and Jeff Van Drew (D-1), and Essex County Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) and Hudson County Sen. Brian Stack (D-33).

Van Drew said, “This has been difficult. That’s what leadership’s about.”

He supports the unions, he said, but, “We have problems.”

He responded to the other half of his caucus who wanted the pension reform separated from the health care reform: “The governor has made it clear he will not sign pension reform if (health care reform) is not there.”

He also responded to the defendants of union negotiating rights, too: “The prohibition on collective bargaining will sunset in the fourth year.”

He mentioned the many facets of the reform that were softened by the Democratic leadership, like a 9 percent pension rollback that Gov. Chris Christie supported, but was not part of the final legislation.

“The results would be much, much harsher than anything this bill does,” Van Drew said

The measure heads Monday to the Assembly Budget Committee and if it clears there will come up for a full vote by the Senate on Thursday. Sweeney, the sponsor of the legislation, needs just five votes from his own caucus to shepherd the bill through. The vote by the full body is expected to fall along similar lines.

In the Assembly, Speaker Sheila Oliver needs just eight votes from her caucus to pass the bill.

During today’s deliberations, Sen. Joseph Pennacchio said, “I think we all agree that there is a problem…The worst thing we all can do is nothing.”

He said the current pension system is “unsustainable” and will run out of money in the future, which was challenged by some of the bill’s detractors today.

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After hours of emotional testimony, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legislation that will sharply increase public employee’s contributions to pension and health benefits.

The committee voted 9 to 4 in favor of the bill, with Democratic Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-36), Linda Greenstein (D-14), Barbara Buono (D-18) and Sandra Cunningham (D-31) voting against the measure.

Greenstein said, “The reason for my vote, plain and simple, is collective bargaining.”

She said labor negotiations are “sacred,” and turned the spotlight away from her legislative leaders.

“I fault Gov. Christie here for refusing to bargain with these workers,” she said, although the governor ultimately did negotiate health care with the union.

She said, “Refusing to bargain…put our caucus, even Sen. Sweeney, into a (tough position) to act on this.”

Even though he opposed the bill, Sarlo said Sweeney had come a long way having been calling for the pension and benefit overhaul for years.

“He’s come a long way,” Sarlo said. “With regard to collective bargaining, I stop there.”

The vote broke along party and geographic lines, as all five Republican committee members voted in favor, along with South Jersey Sens. Jim Beach (D-6) and Jeff Van Drew (D-1). They were joined by Essex County Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) and Hudson County Sen. Brian Stack (D-33).

Van Drew said, “This has been difficult. That’s what leadership’s about.”

He supports the unions, he said, but, “We have problems.”

He responded to the other half of his caucus who wanted the pension reform separated from the health care reform: “The governor has made it clear he will not sign pension reform if (health care reform) is not there.”

He also responded to the defendants of union negotiating rights, too: “The prohibition on collective bargaining will sunset in the fourth year.”

He mentioned the many facets of the reform that were softened by the Democratic leadership, like a 9 percent pension rollback that Gov. Chris Christie supported, but was not part of the final legislation.

“The results would be much, much harsher than anything this bill does,” Van Drew said.

The measure heads Monday to the Assembly Budget Committee and if it clears there will come up for a full vote by the senate on Thursday. Sweeney, the sponsor of the legislation, needs just five votes from his own caucus to shepherd the bill trough. The vote by the full body is expected to fall along similar lines.

Pennacchio said, “I think we all agree that there is a problem…The worst thing we all can do is nothing.”

He said the current pension system is “unsustainable” and will run out of money in the future, which was challenged by some of the bill’s detractors today.

In the assembly, Speaker Sheila Oliver needs just eight votes from her caucus to pass the bill.

The measure has cast the legislature into turmoil as Democrats in both houses have railed against taking health benefits out of the collective bargaining process.  It is vehemently opposed by the state’s public employee unions, which have lobbied hard to kill the bill.

Last night, the governor along with legislative leaders from both parties announced that a deal had been struck.  The announcement guaranteed the bill would be passed by June 30 and marked the first time that Oliver voiced full support.  Oliver had previously said she could not support the bill without strong support in her caucus.<–>

Senate committee passes pension and benefits legislation