As reported by, despite a rising chorus of opposition from fellow Democrats, the Senate President and Assembly Speaker pressed forward Tuesday to overhaul health and pension benefits for the state’s 500,000 public employees. After trying for a week to line up Democratic support for the measure with little success, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver announced that she had scheduled a hearing on the controversial plan on Monday.

Oliver’s decision came on the same day that Senate President Stephen Sweeney introduced his 120-page bill, which is scheduled for a hearing before the budget committee on Thursday. It shifts more of the costs of pension and health benefits onto public workers in the form of increased contributions, along with eliminating cost of living adjustments for retirees and pushing back the retirement age. Nearly all of the state’s public workers would see their health insurance costs at least double and in many instances triple.  

As momentum has built for the plan among Senate leaders eager for an agreement, so has union opposition. Labor leaders are urging members to rally at the Statehouse on Thursday to block what they see as a crucial blow to the collective bargaining rights in the state.

Unlike Sweeney, who is relying largely on Republicans, Oliver has said she will not move the bill without “significant” support of her party. Tuesday she said she wanted to use the committee hearing to touch off an earnest debate.

So far Governor Chris Christie, despite working with Sweeney on the measure, has not publicly endorsed it. Union members and lawmakers have not expressed their opposition to the portion of the bill concerning pensions, and several lawmakers want the pension and health changes put in separate bills.

Currently, the average public employee earns about $60,000 a year and pays 1.5 percent of that salary, or $900 a year, for health benefits. Under the Sweeney bill, the same employee could pay $2,056 annually for single coverage and $3,230 annually for a family plan. Employees with the lowest incomes would pay about 2 percent of their salaries for health benefits, while those who earn $110,000 would kick in 6 percent of their salaries.