TRENTON - New Jersey's Senate president says he will move forward on a bill requiring public workers to pay higher health-insurance costs despite a letter from national labor leaders urging him and fellow Democrats not to support it and the Assembly's refusal - so far - to go along.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said the measure, which includes higher costs for pensions as well as health benefits, will get its first hearing before a Senate budget panel next week.
Sweeney and Republican Gov. Christie brokered a deal on the issue this week. But Assembly Democrats balked, leaving the bill's prospects in doubt. Approval is needed from both houses of the Legislature.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) said her members were not ready to sign off Wednesday after seeing details of the plan for the first time.
"I am committed to getting it done," she said Thursday. "The consequences of inaction are not an option."
Labor leaders want health benefits to be negotiated, not legislated.
Ten national union leaders sent a letter to Democratic lawmakers Thursday urging them to reject any deal that would legislate health-care coverage, which they said should be bargained during contract negotiations.
"We expect you, as a Democrat, to stand with working families and to defend collective bargaining rights. This is a vote we take very seriously," the letter stated. It was signed by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and others.
There is broader agreement in the New Jersey Assembly for raising pension contributions, but Sweeney has refused to split retiree and health benefits proposals into two bills.
"Of course they want to do the pension bill," Sweeney said. "Know why? That's what the unions want. They want their pension fixed, but they don't want to have to deal with the health-care component. You know who needs the health-care component? The taxpayers."
Christie called the issues "conjoined as problems" and said Thursday that he would reject separate legislation.
The governor "knows he can get pension savings working with the Legislature. He knows he can get health-care savings by accepting our proposal at the bargaining table," said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America, New Jersey's largest public worker union. "The only thing he cares about is scoring political points with Republican primary voters in Iowa, by smashing collective bargaining and busting unions in a blue state."
CWA, which represents 55,000 state and municipal workers, is in contract negotiations with the Christie administration. The union's current contract expires June 30.
The governor is counting on $323 million in savings in next year's budget through employee health insurance changes. He has not said whether he would veto the budget if the Legislature doesn't pass pension and health-benefits legislation by July 1, when a balanced budget must be in place for the new fiscal year.
Sweeney said Thursday that the proposed pension change would save $120 billion over 30 years and would help guarantee retirement benefits for 800,000 teachers; firefighters; police officers; and state, county, and municipal workers. The state's pension and retiree health-care systems are underfunded by tens of billions of dollars.
"Everyone promised sunshine in the rain," Sweeney said. "Now we have a monsoon."
"It is not an attack on public workers," Sweeney said. "This is absolutely not Wisconsin."
In Wisconsin, a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court challenges a law calling for almost all public workers to contribute more to their health care and pensions and stripping them of nearly all their collective bargaining rights.
But Bill Lavin, head of the Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, said Sweeney's insistence on moving forward without support from Assembly Democrats shows his political arrogance.
"He has the potential to destroy the state Democratic Party for years to come," Lavin said. "Hopefully, there are more than two people who run the state of New Jersey."