As reported by nj.com, fierce opposition could not stop the Senate from passing a contentious measure Monday that will sharply raise the cost of health benefits and pensions for the state’s 500,000 public employees. With protesters dressed in Revolutionary-era garb gathered outside the Statehouse and union members clamoring inside, the pivotal Senate vote came on the same day the Assembly Budget Committee approved by a 7-5 vote an identical version following eight hours of testimony.
After days of protest from Democrats, Republicans and union members, a last-minute provision inserted by Senate President Stephen Sweeney limiting public employees’ access to out-of-state hospitals was weakened hours before lawmakers met Monday. The changes agreed to by Sweeney, shortly before the Senate approved the measure 24-15, would allow public workers to receive out-of-state care at a higher cost if a doctor decides the treatment is not available in New Jersey.
The Senate vote earlier in the day was a major legislative victory for Sweeney and Governor Chris Christie, who along with others hammered out the agreement over the last two months even as they sparred over other issues. The bill increases pension costs up to two percent of workers’ salaries for all public employees, while at least doubling, and in many cases tripling, their health care contributions. It also raises the retirement age from 62 to 65, eliminates cost-of-living adjustments and creates a board to formulate a menu of health plans, including low-cost, high-deductible options.
The Assembly is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday, when it is expected to pass, just as in the Senate, despite little Democratic support. The changes are expected to save $10 million next year, far less than the $300 million the Christie administration had expected.
The Senate legislation (S2937) passed with the support of a handful of Democrats. One Democrat after another took the floor to condemn the bill, saying it curtailed the right to collectively bargain, drawing applause and cheers from the gallery. Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono said undermining the collective bargaining process “erodes out identity as a nation.” “Today is all about politics,” she said. The bill was a result of “back-room deals” instead of open debate. It restricts competition, she said, “an affront to free-market principles.”
Sweeney’s defenders were primarily Republicans, including state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, a close friend of the governor. He called it a “historic day,” and praised Sweeney’s leadership.