TRENTON – After an emotional hearing that saw two dozen union protesters arrested for disorderly conduct, the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved a bill to increase public workers’ contributions to their pension and health benefits by a 9-4 vote.
All five Republican senators on the committee backed the bill, but the Democrats split 4-4.
Gov. Chris Christie hailed the bi-partisan compromise bill as a model for the rest of the nation, saying “the pension reforms in this bill alone will save taxpayers $122 billion over the next thirty years and bring all of those pension systems within thirty years, into a 80% funding ratio,” restoring their stability.
Thousands of union members came to Trenton to protest the bill. New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech insisted that any changes to worker benefits should be negotiated through the collective bargaining process.
“Only through collective bargaining do workers have a voice – and those who vote for this legislation will be voting to silence the voices of approximately 500,000 workers,” Wowkanech warned the state Senate budget committee.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who helped broker the compromise bill, said that it “is not an attack on public workers” in his testimony before the committee. He insisted that, “Change is here and it is fair and affordable.”
“If we do nothing, the pension systems will default within the next few years. This will leave hard-working, rank-and-file retirees without any pension or health benefits at all,” warned state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), a member of the committee. “The prudent compromise struck today will ensure that the retirement and health care benefits of current and future retirees will be protected.”
Asm. John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the New Jersey Democratic State Committee Chairman, and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), urged lawmakers to split the proposed legislation into two bills. “Pension reform and health benefit reform are two different discussions and should be contained within two different pieces of legislation,” they said.
The changes, if passed, will do little to help Christie balance his upcoming $29.6 billion budget which must be set by the end of the month. The governor hoped to realize a $300 million savings through health benefit reform, but a state treasury official testified that the changes would only save $10 million.
New Jersey faces a $53.9 billion pension deficit because politicians failed to make required contributions for years while increasing promised benefits. Soaring health care costs leave the state with $66.8 billion in unfunded liabilities.
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