- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2011

TRENTON, N.J. — The move to stabilize New Jersey’s underfunded pension and health care systems by requiring public employees to pay sharply more for the benefits while suspending bargaining over health care was fast-tracked through the Legislature Monday, after Democrats joined with Republicans to buck the powerful public employee unions.

The Senate passed the bill 24-15 as a gallery full of raucous union members looked on. Eight Democrats aligned with all 16 Republicans to pass the bill. An Assembly budget panel advanced the measure hours later, also with a minority of the majority party’s support.

A vote by the full Assembly is set for Thursday. Gov. Chris Christie has already indicated his support.

“The time for political calculations is over,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat and member of the ironworkers’ union, who sponsored the bill. “The time for passing the buck to someone else is over.”


The Assembly Budget Committee approved the bill 7-5 after an eight-hour hearing that began with an impassioned plea from Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. Three Democrats paired with four Republicans; five Democrats voted “no.”

“This is the correct legislation for this moment,” Mrs. Oliver said.

The Republican governor, a driving force behind the landmark legislation, praised the Senate for its action.

“This is a watershed moment for New Jersey, proving that the stakes are too high and the consequences all too real to stand by and do nothing,” he said. “As a result of Democrats and Republicans coming together to confront the tough issues, we are providing a sustainable future for our pension and health benefit system, saving New Jersey taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and securing a fiscally responsible future for our state.”

Mr. Sweeney and Mrs. Oliver, also a Democrat, struck a deal with Mr. Christie and Republican legislative leaders to advance the bill. They rejected repeated calls from union leaders and Democrats to split the bill and force the governor to negotiate health care with the largest public worker union, the Communications Workers of America, whose contract expires June 30.

“You’ve made the governor not do his job,” said Adam Liebtag, a CWA local president.

An amendment relaxing a potential deal-killer — a provision restricting public workers’ access to out-of-state medical care unless similar care wasn’t available in-state — was approved in the Senate, 24-14.

The change instructs new health care boards to create insurance plans that include only in-state providers, as well as options that include coverage for out-of-state providers. Employees could choose the plan they want, but more extensive benefits would cost more.

The employee-benefits legislation requires a half-million teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees to pay a portion of their health insurance premiums based on income. Pension contributions would also rise, by 1 percent immediately, and by an additional percent or more after a seven-year phase-in. Automatic cost-of-living increases on pensions would disappear, for now.

The average New Jersey public employee, who earns $60,000 and contributes $900 toward health care, would see their yearly health care costs rise to $2,056 for single coverage or $3,230 for a family plan, after a four-year phase-in.