Last Monday, the New Jersey Senate voted favorably on S2937, the pension and health benefits bill. The final vote was 24-15. Republicans voted rank-and-file for this bill along with Democrats from South Jersey. While I absolutely support reform, I do not support the reforms offered in this piece of legislation, and I voted no. On the Senate floor, I rose to speak out against this bill for several reasons.
First, pension reform and health benefits reform should be achieved through separate ways and means, as they are two different issues with different problems and solutions. They should not be wrapped into one as they are in this bill.
Second, this bill eliminates cost-of-living-adjustments (COLA) for all current and future retirees and imposes a 30 year freeze. In fact, the bulk of the savings – 60%, or $73.2 billion – comes from destroying COLA. For retirees with little to no extra income, this will undoubtedly hurt them. The possibility of these retirees being pushed into poverty exists with this bill. In a state where poverty has risen to a greater degree than the rest of the United States, that is unacceptable and unconscionable. COLAs are necessary in every state but especially in New Jersey, where costs may fluctuate but nevertheless always remain high.
Third, the provision in the bill barring public workers from choosing out-of-state hospitals or doctors was unsettling and was removed from the bill language in the midnight hour. Despite its removal, the question remains – why was there any need to include a provision like that in the first place?
With regard to healthcare costs, we need to look at why health care costs are rising and how can we lower the aggregate cost, rather than looking at how we can shift these costs. The remedy that this bill offers does not deal with these tough questions. This bill punishes hard-working public workers for the expense of the State, which year after year has raided and underfunded pension accounts, shortchanging our workers and retirees in the process – many of whom have given decades of dedication to public service. Now we are asking them to pay more to fix a problem not of their own making. That is wrong.
And fourth, the sunset provision in this bill, while temporary, is an infringement of the collective bargaining rights of our state’s workers. This is perhaps the most important reason behind my opposition to this bill. The time-honored tradition of collective bargaining of health benefits for local unions – which represent our teachers, our firefighters, our police officers – gets swept under the rug. This is unconscionable and unacceptable, and I, along with many of my Democratic colleagues, stand strongly with the rights of the public worker.
The middle class has always been the backbone of American productivity and the engine of our national and state economy, due in part to their ability to unionize and collectively bargain for decent wages, health benefits, and pension – in essence, their security. Dismantling these securities, for however brief a time, sets us on a dangerous path. The true prosperity of our state depends on a strong and thriving middle class and on the principles of fairness with which New Jersey has always led the nation.
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