N.J. governor signs bill shifting more costs to workers
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation Tuesday that will require government workers to pay more for health care and pensions...
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation Tuesday that will require government workers to pay more for health care and pensions, making the state among the largest in the nation to roll back employee benefits to offset fiscal woes.
"New Jersey has once again become a model for America," said Christie, a Republican, who won support from two key Democrats to overcome labor-union opposition.
The measure was the latest setback for unions, which lost battles to prevent Republican-run state governments in Ohio and Wisconsin from enacting legislation that limited public employees' collective-bargaining rights.
But unlike Wisconsin, where the union-opposed legislation led 14 Democratic senators to flee the state in an unsuccessful effort to block its passage, New Jersey's top Democratic legislative leaders — including one with ties to labor — joined Christie in supporting benefit changes for government workers and retirees. A majority of Democrats in the Legislature, however, opposed the measure.
In defending his vote, Steve Sweeney, Democratic president of the New Jersey state Senate and member of the ironworkers union, told colleagues last week:
"No one in the last 10 years has advanced more pro-labor legislation then I have. At the same time ... I am also responsible to the taxpayers of this state."
Unions have vowed to challenge the legislation in court.
New Jersey has unfunded liabilities in excess of $120 billion for retiree health costs and pensions.
The Pew Center on the States has estimated the shortfall at more than a trillion dollars nationwide.
Such shortfalls have spurred about half of the states to enact pension legislation this year. Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bill requiring state workers to contribute 3 percent of their salaries toward their pensions, a measure that's already drawn a legal challenge from the state teachers union. Even in heavily Democratic Maryland, lawmakers passed legislation to require public employees to contribute more for their pensions.
The addition of New Jersey to the list could give impetus to efforts by other governors to overhaul their states' pension systems. "The more states that act, the easier it is for additional states to act," said Ron Snell of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Unions argue they have sacrificed — through job cuts, among other ways — and say the New Jersey rollbacks should have been negotiated rather than legislated.
The New Jersey law affects more than 800,000 current and retired workers, including police officers, firefighters and teachers. Besides requiring employees to pay more for health care and pensions, the legislation will suspend cost-of-living increases for retirees' pension checks until the pension system becomes more stable. It also will raise the retirement age.
Steve Wollmer of the New Jersey Education Association said the bill will force a teacher earning an average $66,000 a year to pay $9,130 toward his or her health care and pension, a $4,500-a-year increase.
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