Christie targets health benefits without bargaining

Posted: March 17, 2011

TRENTON - Gov. Christie said Wednesday that he would not negotiate health benefits for public workers through collective bargaining and instead would try to change the law to increase contributions toward health premiums.

"We're not negotiating this. We're going for a legislative fix. That's the plan," Christie said at a Statehouse news conference.

That drew an immediate comparison to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican who inflamed passions on both sides of the union debate when he moved to limit collective-bargaining rights for most public workers. Walker's plan, signed into law last week, triggered sleep-ins at the capitol in Madison and declarations of the end of the labor movement.

Christie's tactic "is a Wisconsin response," said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey director of the Communications Workers of America, which represents about 40,000 state employees.

Rosenstein said she had found out about Christie's intentions Friday when union leaders took a health-care proposal to the first day of negotiations for state worker contracts, which expire in June.

"Of course we expect to bargain health care. The law is that it's negotiable, and we have a proposal," she said. "We believe in collective bargaining. We think collective bargaining has been valuable to New Jersey and America. Disturbing, very disturbing."

Rosenstein referred to Christie's statement this month that he "loves" collective bargaining and was ready to sit at the negotiating table. "Let me at them," Christie had said.

"He says he likes collective bargaining, but we're going to take portions of collective bargaining and make them illegal," Rosenstein said. "It remains to be seen whether or not the Legislature is of the view that the governor should not be bargaining at the table."

The Assembly and Senate, both controlled by Democrats, seem divided on the issue.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has sponsored a benefits bill that would require workers to pay a percentage of their health-care premiums on a sliding scale tied to their salaries. It would be phased in over several years and max out at 30 percent for six-figure earners.

The Republican governor's plan calls for all employees to pay 30 percent of their health-care premiums, regardless of salary, by 2014.

"This isn't some wild, crazy Republican plan. This is a bipartisan idea that the Senate president and I agree on," Christie said, noting that he and Sweeney had already had discussions about reconciling their plans.

But an agreement means nothing without acquiescence in the Assembly, which doesn't seem open to cutting into collective bargaining. On Monday, the Assembly adopted a resolution supporting collective bargaining and stressing that it "respects the collective bargaining process and embraces it as the best course for negotiating employee and employer relations," according to Assembly Democratic spokesman Tom Hester Jr.

Hester had no further comment on the prospects for a health-benefit bill in the Assembly.

During a meeting with The Inquirer's editorial board Wednesday, Sweeney said his benefits proposal offered more options for health-care plans. Negotiating what those plans look like would still be collectively bargained.

Sweeney said union leaders had "done such a great job with pension and health care we're $100 billion in the hole. At what point do we decide we've got to do something differently?"

He was referring to the fact that the unfunded liabilities for the state's retiree health benefits and pension costs are about $120 billion, according to the Department of Treasury. Sweeney and Christie also have competing pension proposals.

The unfunded liability for retiree health care is nearly $67 billion, and a study by the Pew Center on the States said New Jersey had a higher unfunded liability for retiree health benefits than any other state.

Sweeney said he was committed to enacting health and pension benefit changes, but "we're going to have one hell of a brawl trying to get this stuff done."


Contact staff writer Matt Katz

at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com. Read the "Christie Chronicles" blog at philly.com/christiechronicles.

Inquirer staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this article.

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