TRENTON - Prominent New Jersey legislators vowed yesterday to try to revise taxpayer-paid pension and health benefits for newly hired state workers, a move that quickly drew outcry from state worker labor unions.
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney said he and several legislators were introducing a bipartisan package to save $300 million through 2022.
But besides state worker opposition, Democratic Gov. Corzine prefers negotiating most benefit changes with labor unions.
"I think it's going to be very controversial, but it's the right thing to do," Sweeney said.
The plan pushed by Sweeney, Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union) proposes:
Basing state pension calculations on a five-year average instead of three years.
Requiring people with multiple public jobs to collect only one pension.
Eliminating pension and health benefits for part-time employees.
Allowing the state to offer incentives to state workers to opt out of health benefits, if the worker is eligible for other health coverage.
Prohibiting state pension system credit for out-of-state service.
Robert Master, spokesman for the Communications Workers of America, which represents state workers, said the union backs eliminating fraud and abuse from the benefits system.
"But most of these bills represent an unfair and unprincipled attack on the negotiated benefits of hardworking low- and middle-income public workers," Master said.
Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said they hope the bills would pass by month's end and balance the governor's plan to offer retirement incentives to state workers.
Legislators are concerned about Corzine's plan to save $136 million by offering retirement incentives to 3,000 state workers. The move would save $457 million within three years but boost pension costs by $517 million in that time.
Corzine and legislators must agree to a new budget by a July 1 state constitutional deadline.
A new state worker contract effective last July capped at $97,200 the salary on which pensions are calculated for new hires, raised the retirement age from 55 to 60 for new hires, increased employee pension contributions from 5 percent to 5.5 percent and required employees to pay 1.5 percent toward health care.
Sweeney said the proposed package "builds on top of that."
But Carla Katz, president of CWA Local 1034, the largest state workers union chapter, said her members were "outraged, sick of these legislative attempts to violate the contract."
"We just will not tolerate it," Katz said.