WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
NJ Senate Panel Votes 9 to 4 to Approve Pension Bill
Friday, June 17, 2011
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took a preliminary victory lap on Thursday evening, celebrating the passage in committee earlier in the day of a public employee benefit reform plan he said would generate $122 billion in savings over the next 30 years for the state's beleaguered pension system. The Governor spoke during a call-in show hosted by WNET and WNYC.
He told program host Steve Adubato that the bill, a compromise he forged with New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, would bring the state's pension fund back from the brink of collapse to solvency. If so, full passage of the bill would mean a real, tangible accomplishment with a big assist from key Democrats.
"I think most citizens want public employees to get the pensions they've earned, but they want fairness and everyone to share sacrifice," said Christie, who did give in on several key points to get to 'Yes' from Democrat and trade Unionist Sweeney, whose is an official with the Ironworkers Union.
Earlier on Thursday in Trenton, the new social order was on full display with organized labor left to yell from the sidelines. As a chamber packed with union members looked on, a state Senate committee approved a bill that included significant changes to state pension and health care benefits. Only four Democrats, Senators Barbara Buono, Sandra Cunningham and Linda Greenstein and Budget Chairperson Paul Sarlo, opposed the measure, which suspends the state's long tradition of collective bargaining for health care benefits and will force public employees to pay more and work longer for their benefits. Democratic Senators Brian Stack, James Beach, Teresa Ruiz and Jeff Van Drew all backed the bill.
Chanting "kill the bill" and "worker rights are human rights," AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech and other two dozen other agitated trade unionists were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Outside the chamber at a rally with thousands of union members looking on, Christopher Shelton of the CWA referred to Governor Christie as "Adolph" and New Jersey as "Nazi Germany."
Democratic Senator Linda Greenstein said the bill was a blow to collective bargaining and was part of national campaign to scapegoat public workers for the ongoing economic crisis.
"We got into a mess according to these people because public workers wanted something for nothing and weak-minded politicians catered to their foolishness. Nothing could be further from the truth."
The suspension of collective bargaining for health benefits would sunset in it's fourth year explained South Jersey Democrat Senator Van Drew. Governor Christie and his Democratic allies have said the state faces $100 billion in unfunded pension and health care benefit plan liabilities and without the roll back in benefits the plans and the state would be insolvent.
Democrat Van Drew said he had been a life long supporter of the American labor movement, but the bi-partisan legacy of the state not making the required pension contributions meant swift legislative action was essential for the long term state and pension funds fiscal viability.
"But we have a problem. This pension as the Senate President outlined before, if we continue to move the way we are, believe me, and I have read the bill, this pension will default in a relatively short period of time," said VanDrew.
For some in the legislature, how they voted was rooted in their political DNA. Democratic Budget Chair Paul Sarlo explained in poignant personal terms why he could not back a bill that suspended the right to collectively bargain for health care.
"My dad, who passed away a year and a half ago, worked as a construction worker for a small family owned company, non-union -- no health benefits, no pension and died from many illnesses he suffered because he did not have the proper health care."
But opponents in the chamber did not have a monopoly on eloquence. Earlier in the day it was Eldridge Hawkins, Mayor of Orange, who testified his struggling city desperately needed the cost-savings contained in the Christie Sweeney compromise. Hawkins said passing the ever-escalating benefit costs along to homeowners through the local property taxes was no longer an option.
"We get the phone calls. 'Mayor Hawkins, we can't stay in our house, we are on a fixed income. That $500 a month increase is making us choose between my prescription coverage and taxes,'" recounted Hawkins. "They can't afford it. They are losing their homes, foreclosures, short sales throughout the state."
The package of health care and pension reforms may come up for a vote as soon as next week. Governor Christie is counting on $300 million of potential savings as part of his budget for next year, which has to be finalized by the end of June. Other state officials put the actual projected savings at a fraction of that.
Public union leaders told the Senate panel that the move to impose the changes to workers benefits by legislative action and not through negotiation was a "Wisconsin-like" attack on the state's history of collective bargaining with public workers. But the Democrats who have closed ranks with Christie said the state's balance sheet and the legacy of bi-partisan mismanagement of the state pension left left them with little choice.