As reported by nj.com, irate public employees converged on the Statehouse by the thousands Thursday touting horns, carrying signs, and disrupting a Senate hearing, but the show of force failed to break a legislative agreement overhauling their state health and pension benefits. Union members gathered at the Statehouse steps and clogged a Senate hearing room in an effort to thwart the progress of a bipartisan bill that was worked out Wednesday night between Democrats and Republicans.
There was even an inflatable rat outside the Statehouse annex with a sign on its chest that said, “Pension betrayal.” At one point the police led more than two dozen union workers from the hearing and charged them with disorderly conduct after they locked arms and began shouting “kill the bill” and “workers rights are human rights.”
As the raucous crowd cheered on union leaders and disgruntled Democrats, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee absorbed a litany of blistering criticism of the bill and the legislators who support it. The measure, if approved, will force the state’s 500,000 public workers to assume a much larger share of the costs for health care and pension benefits. The labor leaders testified that health benefits should be negotiated, not legislated, and urged the panel to split the measure into separate bills. For four hours, union leaders pleaded in vain with Democratic legislators to vote against the measure, which was approved by a 9-4 vote.
Governor Chris Christie praised the measure Thursday at the annual conference of the New Jersey Association of Counties meeting in Atlantic City. “New Jersey is setting a model for dealing with these problems in an honest, forthright and bipartisan way,” he boasted.
The bill shifts more of the costs of health and pension benefits onto public workers in the form of increased contributions, while also freezing cost of living adjustments for retirees and raising the retirement age. Christie, who helped shape the bill, has said he hoped to save $300 million from health benefit reform, but a state treasury official testified that the bill would only save $10 million. Christie and lawmakers have until June 30 to fill the gap and approve his $29.6 billion budget for the next fiscal year.
The 9-4 vote, which included support from four Democrats, set up a vote by the full Senate on Monday, the same day the Assembly Budget Committee will hold its hearing. If approved, the full Assembly will vote on Thursday. While Democrats control both chambers, a majority of them oppose the bill, so Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who accepted the deal much more reluctantly, are relying on Republicans to pass the bill.