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N.J. deal near on workers' benefits

Legislators, not collective bargaining, would decide public employees' health and pension contributions.

TRENTON - Gov. Christie and the Legislature are inching toward a deal to change health and pension benefits for public workers across the state through legislation instead of collective bargaining, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said Wednesday.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney already is on board.

The Republican governor and the two leaders met throughout Wednesday in their second meeting in a week. Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said more talks could occur this week.

"We're at a stage of our discussions right now where he has an open ear," Oliver (D., Essex) said of Christie.

"We've had healthy discussions all along," said Sweeney.

It's important to Christie that whatever deal is struck saves the $323 million the administration factored into its proposed budget, which would start July 1, Oliver said.

But Christie has moved off his original proposal that all public workers pay 30 percent of the cost of their health-insurance premiums regardless of income, she said, and that has led to a breakthrough in the talks. Most workers now contribute 1.5 percent of their salary toward health care.

"I need to get him to budge a little more, and I may have a product," Oliver said.

The speaker hopes to broker a deal that is acceptable to many in her 47-member caucus and to union leadership.

Sweeney and the Communications Workers of America have proposed alternate plans. Sweeney's proposal ties workers' health insurance payments to their incomes on a sliding scale. The union's plan saves money through bulk purchasing of prescription drugs and digital medical record-keeping.

As of Wednesday, 13 Assembly Democrats supported legislating a health-care package, according to two people involved in the discussions. They spoke on condition of anonymity because no deal had been struck.

At least eight Democratic votes would be needed to pass a bill in the Assembly if all 33 Republicans endorsed the plan. However, Oliver has said she would be reluctant to post the bill with a minimum number of Democrats endorsing it.

Sweeney has enough Democratic votes to get a similar bill through the Senate if most of the 16 Republican senators vote yes. He has been trying to gather additional Democratic support.

"I'm trying to sell a plan that's fair to the workforce, but is actually fair to the taxpayers too," Sweeney said. "This is not about attacking workers. It's about being fair to the people who are actually paying these bills."

Christie wants to see pension and health care changes legislated. He says the changes are needed to shore up both systems, which are severely underfunded. He wants state worker benefits more in line with what the private sector offers.

The CWA, the state's largest public worker union, wants health care to remain a collective-bargaining issue. The union, which represents 55,000 state and local employees, is in negotiations with the Christie administration over a new contract. Its current contract expires June 30.

Christie at first refused to negotiate over health care, but retreated after the union filed a labor complaint. Health care was among the topics discussed during a bargaining session Tuesday. The two sides are scheduled to meet again in about a week.

A majority of Democrats in the Assembly have so far been reluctant to move legislation that changes health benefits forward during contract talks with the CWA.

"It's CWA's position that health care has to be collectively bargained," said Hetty Rosenstein, the union's state director. "The CWA has put forth a very reasonable proposal that will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."