As reported by nj.com, despite slim Democratic support, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney is prepared to move forward with a plan to overhaul public employee pensions and health benefits before the end of next month. Sweeney has lined up a small group of Democratic senators who said they would be willing to join with Republicans to help ensure there are enough votes to enact sweeping changes to public employee benefits.
The move signals that ongoing negotiations between Sweeney and Gov. Chris Christie over the shape of the changes are progressing. The sources, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the negotiations, said lawmakers have not been told of specific details, but Sweeney assured Democrats the plan would require workers to contribute more to health benefits and would take their salaries into account.
Sweeney spokesman Chris Donnelly declined to comment on what steps Sweeny has taken or will take to enact the changes, but expressed confidence a bill would pass the Senate. “Reform is coming and the Senate president will have more than enough votes to get it done,” Donnelly said.
The momentum is likely to anger public employee unions and even some Democrats, who argue that employee medical benefits should be decided at the bargaining table, not through legislation. Hetty Rosenstein, regional director for the state’s largest public employee union, called a move to vote on changes to medical benefits “disgusting.” “For Democrats to support a bill that eliminates collective bargaining around health care…that’s hugely problematic for Democrats and wrong,” Rosenstein said. “We expect the Democratic Party to stand up for collective bargaining.”
Sweeney and Christie have found common ground on changes to public employee medical benefits, but less on the issue of pensions. Sweeney introduced a bill that would increase employee medical benefit contributions over seven years and set a sliding scale of 12 to 30 percent of premiums, based on salary. Christie wants to phase increases over three years and have all employees pay 30 percent of their premiums. He also wants to increase the eligibility requirements for post-employment health care.
Both said pension reform is necessary to restore fiscal health to a pension system that was underfunded by $54 billion as of the latest actuarial account.
Christie wants to increase the retirement age to 65 for many employees, require all public employees to contribute 8.5 percent of their salaries into the pension system, and eliminate cost-of-living increases for all current and future retirees. Sweeney has also proposed a series of pension revisions that include creating a board that would have management over the system’s investments and determine employee contribution rates based upon an annual actuarial analysis.