Sweeney answers lingering questions on reform

TRENTON – Responding to press questions about the passage of his pension and benefit reform bill, state Sen. President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, said he is confident it will prove a boon to taxpayers and public employees. The bill passed the Senate today, 24-15.

“It’s not $300 million,” in upfront savings as Gov. Chris Christie expected, Sweeney said, because the Senate president blunted the pain for public workers by stepping up the contribution levels by salary. The pension reform will net $120 billion over 30 years, he said; the health care reform is scheduled to net $3 billion over 10 years.

“I think this is fair, for one reason: it sunsets,” Sweeney said, congratulating Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-34), of East Orange, for bringing that provision to the table.

Christie didn’t get everything he wanted, Sweeney pointed out, like a rollback of a 9 percent pension boost. “It’s still in here,” Sweeney said, which is one thing that public workers can be happy about.

But the other end of the reform – the health care restructuring – Sweeney said was the hardest and most necessary. “Until we started this discussion,” he said, which dates back to 2006, “no one wanted to talk about health care givebacks.”

Although he dislikes the Wisconsin comparison, he said unions there “were losing the battle of public opinion,” which is why they made concession to the state. “Once the concessions were made,” Sweeney said, “the governor there should have stopped.”

Gov. Scott Walker didn’t stop there, though, which Sweeney uses as an illustration of why he was no longer urging unions to make cost-saving deals at the bargaining table.

Also, when he was in discussions with the unions over setting a maximum cap on health care contribution levels for the state’s cheapest plan, he said union representatives asked for the plan’s specifics to be designed in statute.

“They wanted to legislate, not negotiate,” he said. “We have to have the opportunity to develop the plan…There’s no incentive right now to take anything but the Cadillac (plan).”

Regarding an out-of-state care provision that was amended with a separate piece of legislation, Sweeney said the only reason the provision was met with criticism was that he failed to explain it properly.

“All this will do is allow us to create an in-state plan like Pennsylvania has. We’re not sure if this will save money or not, that’s why we have to design it,” Sweeney said. Asked what the impetus for the provision was, he said, “Honestly, to try to get money back into hospitals in New Jersey; we closed 19 of them…How many orderlies and janitors have been laid off?”

Asked about whether pension fund management that kicks in when the accounts reach 80 percent funding was something public safety unions will almost instantly achieve.

“Their pension funds are funded to a different level,” he said. “(The non-public safety unions) lied to their members…Union officials are no different than public officials like me: they run for office.” He said the non-public safety unions reduced member pension contributions, lowered the retirement age, and accepted a 9 percent boost that wasn’t sustainable. “Pensions are simple: what you put in, you get out,” he said. “(Police, fire, and troopers) didn’t get that 9 percent bump when everybody else did…(Now) they can start to turn the ship around, start reinstituting (cost of living adjustments),” etc.

Hearing boos and hisses from labor backers in the balcony during the vote “broke my heart,” Sweeney said. “But it’s the real world and you deal with it.”

Two provisions that were adjusted by Sweeney publicly were criticized for being giveaways to his political ally, George Norcross III. Sweeney said in jest that Norcross catches blame for everything: “For the bogey man coming out of the corner.” But Sweeney said Norcross had no impact on the legislation. “I will never walk away from a friend,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney answers lingering questions on reform