As reported by nj.com, Governor Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney were poised to announce an agreement on a plan to overhaul health and pension benefits for public employees, but were stymied after the compromise received a chilly reception in the Assembly. “We are not there yet,” said Speaker Sheila Oliver, who found herself wedged between two of the state’s most powerful politicians.
Word of the agreement also drew quick opposition from public labor unions across the state, who said it represented an attack on collective bargaining rights by taking away their ability to negotiate health benefits.
The plan would require the state’s 500,000 public employees to contribute more money for their pensions and health benefits than they currently do and freezing cost-of-living adjustments for retirees until the pension funds stabilize. The overhaul, which lawmakers have agonized over since Christie took office a year and a half ago, would address two of the most costly issues facing the state.
New Jersey has promised $66.7 billion in medical benefits to current and future retirees, the highest tag among the 50 states, but has not set aside a single penny to pay for it. At the same time, the state has about 66 percent of the assets needed to meet its future pension obligations, ranking it among the worst funded in the nation.
Oliver outlined the plan to caucus members in a closed-door meeting, where many told her that while changes in the pension plan were needed, they agreed with union leaders that the health benefits should be negotiated and not legislated. More than a dozen union leaders stood outside the room where the Assembly Democrats had gathered, hoping the members of lower chamber would provide a bulwark against the part of the package that addresses health benefits.
Facing a similar lack of support, Sweeney has lined up a small group of Democratic senators who have agreed to join with Republicans to make sure there are enough votes to pass the overhaul, which will be wrapped up in one bill. In a written statement, Sweeney said the plan would save taxpayers $120 billion over an unspecified period of time, while protecting the pensions and health benefits of low- to middle-income workers. Notably, the statement did not include any details about the plan, such as how it would save taxpayers $120 billion.