As reported by nj.com, New Jersey lawmakers voted to enact a sweeping plan to cut public worker benefits after a long day of high-pitched political drama in the streets of Trenton and behind closed doors. Union members chanted outside the Statehouse and in the Assembly balcony, and dissident Democrats tried to stall with amendments and technicalities. Although they successfully convinced top lawmakers to remove a controversial provision restricting public workers’ access to out-of-state medical care, they failed to halt a historic defeat for New Jersey’s powerful unions and a political victory for Republican Governor Chris Christie.
More than 8,500 protesters, the most this year, poured into Trenton this morning with signs, speeches and their trademark inflatable rat. But most had dispersed by the time Democrats emerged from their hours-long caucus meetings where they debated the bill’s details and a separate budget proposal. The Assembly convened for a vote at about 6:15 p.m., more than five hours late, and lawmakers delivered speech after speech on the bill for nearly three hours.
Christie and Republicans banded together with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver to advance the bill despite opposition from the majority of Democrats who control the Legislature. The bill passed the Assembly 46-32 and will be sent to Christie’s desk for his signature. Fourteen Democrats voted for the bill, while 32 opposed it. After the vote, protesters in the balcony shouted “Shame on you!”
Unions have blasted the bill for ending their ability to collectively bargain their medical benefits. Health care plans for 500,000 public workers would be set by a new state panel comprised of union workers and state managers, rather than at the negotiating table. A sunset provision would allow unions to resume collective bargaining after increased health care contributions are phased in over four years. In addition, police officers, firefighters, teachers and rank-and-file public workers would all pay more for their pensions and health benefits.
Supporters of the bill say the state needs to cut costs because the pension and health systems are underfunded by more than $120 billion total. The Christie administration estimated the bill would save $3 billion in health benefits over the next 10 years and $120 billion in pension costs over 30 years. Much of the pension savings are from the controversial elimination of the cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, which unions have threatened to challenge in court.
The union protest, like other recent demonstrations, did nothing to stop the bill. But, it did highlight the growing fissures in the state Democratic Party. While Sweeney and Oliver were pushing the bill, the chairman of the state party, Assemblyman John Wisniewski was rallying protesters with two-dozen other Democrats.