N.J. Senate panel advances plan for public employees to pay more for benefits

Nick Santana, president of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 195 at Richard Stockton College, was among about 3,500 public workers who rallied outside the Statehouse Annex.
Nick Santana, president of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 195 at Richard Stockton College, was among about 3,500 public workers who rallied outside the Statehouse Annex. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 17, 2011

TRENTON - A labor rally that included a comparison of Gov. Christie to Adolf Hitler and the arrests of two dozen union workers for disrupting a hearing did not deter a Senate committee Thursday from approving a plan for public employees to pay more for their benefits.

The Budget and Appropriations Committee voted, 9-4, for legislation expected to save millions of tax dollars by requiring greater pension and health-care contributions from government workers.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), goes for a vote Monday before the Senate, where it is expected to pass in a manner nearly unheard of in Trenton, with a small group of Democrats bucking opposition from their own party to join the GOP minority.

Labor leaders fumed that their traditional allies in the Democratic-controlled Legislature were working with the Republican governor to legislate benefits they would prefer to negotiate, and sent 3,500 workers to the Capitol.

As the budget panel heard testimony on the measure - two weeks before the deadline to pass a state budget - police and firefighters, teachers, and state employees used voices, whistles, and blow horns to make sure they were heard inside.

"Brothers and sisters, inside that hearing room they tell us they can't hear you!" screamed Hetty Rosenstein, a Communications Workers of America leader, before leading chants that included "Sweeney's a rat."

Sweeney, an ironworkers union official, also was called "swine" and "a bum." Threats were made that turncoat Democrats would pay in November, when all 120 legislative seats are up for election.

At the rally, CWA vice president Chris Shelton likened the Statehouse to Nazi Germany.

He said Hitler had attacked the unions just as Christie and his "two generals" were doing. That reference was to Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), who hesitated for weeks to post the bill without the support of a majority of her caucus but joined Wednesday night with Christie and Sweeney to announce an agreement to support it.

The bill (S2937) would increase pension contribution rates for teachers and workers in the Public Employee Retirement System from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent in the first year. It would phase in an additional 1 percent over seven years. Contributions would increase from 8.5 percent to 10 percent for police and fire employees.

The measure also would raise the retirement age to 65 for public employees hired after the law's effective date, compared to the limit of 60 for those enrolled before November 2008 and 62 for those hired after.

Cost-of-living adjustments would be eliminated until the pension system, currently funded at about 60 percent after governors have skipped billions in contributions, was restored to a healthier level of 80 percent.

To try to appease the unions, the law would expire four years after the effective date. It also would preserve the 9 percent pension increase approved in 2001, which Christie wanted to repeal.

Even union critics generally agree that the state must take steps to fix the troubled pension system and do not object to that being legislated. The sticking point has been that the bill would mandate that public workers, who now pay about 8 percent of their health-care premiums, would have to chip in increasingly more over the next four years.

Unions say they would rather make such concessions through a contract. Sweeney's bill would have workers making over $105,000 pay 35 percent of their health benefit costs. Those making less would pay a smaller amount. For example, a teacher making the average salary of $65,000 would fork over 19 percent.

Boos, hisses, and heckles repeatedly disrupted Sweeney's testimony before the Senate budget panel in a first-floor room of the Statehouse Annex, where the senator opened by saying, "When I wake up in the morning, I wake up as a labor leader."

He stood firm on his health benefits plan, saying the state must be fair to public workers.

"But we must also be fair to the taxpayers who are on the hook," Sweeney said.

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) had to repeatedly pound his gavel in the raucous hearing room, which was jammed by several hundred people.

Among the parade of labor leaders testifying in opposition was Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association.

The Legislature was disrespecting workers' rights, especially given that unions were being asked for input on the benefits issue even when Sweeney and Christie had already reached a deal, Lavin said. The governor, he said, is controlling the Democratic Party.

Tension reached a boiling point when union members in the front two rows stood, linked arms, and began chanting "Kill the bill" and "Workers' rights are human rights" as the state police led them out of the room.

Authorities arrested 25 people, charged them with disorderly conduct, and released them pending a hearing.

The four Democratic senators who joined with five Republicans to pass the bill were James Beach of Camden County, Teresa Ruiz of Essex County, Brian Stack of Hudson County, and Jeff Van Drew of Cape May County.

Sarlo, who voted "no" over concerns shared by the majority of Democrats, said after the hearing that Sweeney's pension proposal "is a great concept" but that the rest of the bill fails to lower health care costs and just passes them on to employees.

Before Monday, he said, "Hopefully we can continue to work with labor groups to find a way to resolve this matter."

"But let's not kid ourselves," Sarlo added. "The votes are there."


Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990 or mrao@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.

 

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