As reported by, the state’s top lawmakers said Monday they cleared a significant hurdle in efforts to overhaul public employee benefits after agreeing to a plan that shifts more medical costs onto workers while protecting future collective bargaining rights.

The spotlight now turns to Governor Chris Christie, who has been uncharacteristically quiet as Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Senate President Stephen Sweeney hammer out the final details of a controversial bill overhauling pension and health benefits that is scheduled for its first legislative hearing on Thursday. 

Sweeney endorsed a plan Monday being promoted by Oliver that would increase health benefits contributions for all of the state’s 500,000 public workers but allow unions to seek lower rates at the negotiating table starting in 2014. “The sunset provision is certainly fair and is another example of the kinds of compromise we have been able to achieve with this legislation,” Sweeney said in a written statement.

A spokesman for Christie, Michael Drewniak, said the governor had no comment on the sunset provision or the broader proposal. Christie has spent the last 18 months as governor making his case for overhauling what he has contended are overly lavish pension and health benefits for the state’s public employees, often resorting to blunt criticism of them, their union leaders and Democratic lawmakers.

Sweeney and Christie recently agreed on a plan that shifts more of the costs of pensions and health benefits to public workers in the form of increased contributions, along with pushing back the retirement age and freezing cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. Leaders of the state’s public unions have mounted a fierce opposition to the proposal, urging members to reach out to legislators, lobbying in the halls of the Statehouse and issuing blistering news releases questioning lawmakers’ commitment to collective bargaining.

Sweeny has decided to bring the bill to the Senate floor despite lack of support from Democrats, and will rely on Republicans to approve the measure. Facing similar opposition, Oliver has said she will not move the bill without “significant” support from Assembly Democrats, and it’s unclear whether the sunset provision has resulted in enough support to overcome that self-imposed threshold.

The sunset provision may attract lawmakers who were on the fence, but it will probably do little to persuade staunch supporters of collective bargaining, like Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, whose district includes many state employees. “Any legislative attempt to erode the rights of public workers is a mistake,” said Watson Coleman.