ATLANTIC CITY - Gov. Corzine wasn't ready yesterday to commit to cutting taxpayer-paid benefits for newly hired public workers, but said he didn't think doing so would break contracts with unions representing teachers and government employees.
Public employee benefits could prove a stumbling block as Corzine and the Legislature try to craft a new state budget before the July 1 constitutional deadline.
After speaking yesterday at a New Jersey AFL-CIO convention, Corzine said he must see final proposals to trim benefits before deciding whether to sign them.
The proposals pushed by several key lawmakers are designed to save hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years and balance Corzine's plan to offer retirement incentives to cut the number of state workers.
Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) has said legislators will back a retirement plan if Corzine supports the benefit reforms.
"I never have thought those were connected," Corzine said. "They stand on their own merits, and I'll have to wait and see what the pension reforms are."
But he said he could back, for instance, a plan to limit officials with multiple public jobs to a single pension and said he supported "most" of the bills "in concept."
The bills also propose eliminating benefits for part-time workers and changing how pensions are calculated, among other things.
"There's a whole series of issues in there that would be easy to support as long as they're written appropriately," Corzine said.
But Corzine added he's also heard discussion "about a lot of unintended consequences that are embedded in some of the pension reforms."
The state's largest teachers union, which yesterday launched a campaign blitz against plans to cut benefits, contends the measures would hurt some of the lowest-paid employees.
"We are running this ad campaign to defend innocent school employees," New Jersey Education Association President Joyce Powell said.
The Communications Workers of America, which represents 55,000 state and local government workers, is also rallying against the bills.
Both unions emphasize how they agreed to contract reforms last year that, among other things, required teachers and state workers to contribute more money to their pensions.
"It's unacceptable to have legislators come back a year later with additional cuts in our benefits," Powell said.
Corzine disagreed with that argument.
"I don't think it breaks the contract," he said.
Amid such debate, Charles Wowkanech, the state AFL-CIO president, praised Corzine, who has received heavy support from organized labor.