For months, battle lines have been drawn in New Jersey's debate over health and pension benefits for state workers. On most days, compromise seemed out of the question.
But now, Republican Gov. Christie and Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney are making progress with bipartisan legislation that would force public employees to pay more for benefits and raise the retirement age for new employees from 62 to 65.
The unions have balked at not being able to negotiate concessions under collective bargaining. But with New Jersey facing an obvious and escalating problem, the Senate budget committee Thursday understandably approved the Christie/Sweeney proposal.
Whatever shortcomings the measure may have, it is welcome news to taxpayers who want to see spending decreased. Christie hopes to save $300 million in state-employee health-care costs in his proposed 2012 budget.
Public employees are understandably angry about the proposal, which they see as union busting. The proposal bars public workers from bargaining for any employee benefits except wages.
Collective bargaining may be preferable, but the proposal still needs approval by both Houses in the Legislature, which means the unions can still play a significant role in shaping the measure before it comes up for a final vote.
The Communications Workers of America, the largest state workers' union, has already acknowledged that the days of lucrative contracts are over. Across the country, state governments have been asking public employees to pay more for health care. And employees in private industry have been contributing more for years.
The CWA offered a proposal to have employees pay 22 percent of their health premiums. But Christie rejected it. Under the deal he reached with Sweeney, on a scale based on their incomes, public workers will contribute up to 35 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums, plus contribute more to their pension fund.
While the agreement is laudatory as an example of bipartisan compromise, it is disturbing that South Jersey political broker George Norcross seems to have played an outsized role in crafting the measure for someone who holds no elected office.
For example, one provision in the agreement would bar state workers from using their health benefits at out-of-state hospitals. That may benefit New Jersey, as Norcross points out, but he must admit that it also benefits Cooper Health System in Camden, where he's board chairman.
The good work Christie and Sweeney have done to reach across the aisle to find a workable solution has been tainted by their opening themselves up to accusations that their deal-making was aimed at tossing Norcross' hospital an economic bone.
If passed, their measure will affect 500,000 government workers. Only state police and local police and firefighters would be exempt. There's still time to involve the unions in legislative discussions. That's not collective bargaining, but it's a way for them to be heard.