By Tom Hester Sr.
23 June, 2011

Senate committee reviewing NJN TV takeover plan.

Legislation that would increase health and pension costs for 500,000 state and local government employees and teachers is expected to be approved when it comes up for an Assembly floor vote on Thursday, the last stop before moving to the desk of Gov. Chris Christie, who is prepared to sign it.

Forty-one votes are needed for passage and Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) will need only the support of seven other Democrats beside herself. The 33-member Republican minority is prepared to support the measure. Oliver, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Christie agreed to the compromise bill over the protests of rank and file Democratic legislators and leaders of public employee unions, who argue that changing health and pension benefits are collective bargaining issues.

The legislation (S-2937/A-4133) would double what most public employees contribute to their health insurance. The proposal also would shift the retirement age from 60 to 65 for people entering the workforce. It would eliminate cost-of-living increases that help workers offset inflation and property tax hikes. And it would split insurance plans in to two areas: one for treatment primarily at New Jersey hospitals, and one that would permit workers to get out-of-state care — presumably at a higher cost — though Sweeney could not say whether one plan would be cheaper than the other.

The pension system faces a $53.9 billion deficit. Health care costs also have climbed, and there are $66.8 billion in unfunded liabilities. Christie maintains the system will face insolvency by 2020.

As many as 39 of the 47 Assembly Democrats could vote against the bill. Democrats who are expected to oppose the measure Reed Gusciora (Mercer), Jason O’Donnell (Hudson), Dan Benson (Mercer), Wayne DeAngelo (Mercer) Vincent Prieto (Hudson), Patrick Diegnan (Middlesex), Ralph Caputo (Essex) Cleopatra Tucker (Essex) Annette Quijano (Union), Joseph Cryan (Union), Thomas Giblin (Essex), and Linda Stender (Union).

In her first comment on the controversy, former Gov. Christie Whitman said she is pleased with the way Christie has handled the benefits issue. “Gov. Christie has done our state a great service in his tireless efforts on pension reform,” Whitman said. “Amidst legions of naysayers, he seized the moment, stuck to his convictions and got a result that will benefit generations to come.”

The Assembly will also vote on (ACR-201), a proposal to veto Christie’s plan to give WNET in New York take over the operation of NJN TV.
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, will hold a public hearing in the Statehouse Annex at 10 a.m. to review the details of the governor’s NJN plan. Scheduled to testify are
state Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff; Neal Shapiro, WNET president; Tom Barunek, president of New York Times Radio WNYC; Bill Marazzo, WHYY president; Susan Cole, Montclair State University president, and Dudley Burdge, Communications Workers of American Local 1032 president.

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee will meet at 9 a.m. hear from members of the Christie administration on the proposed Medicaid Comprehensive Waiver and the shifting of some recipients to managed care. The panel will hear from the commissioners of Health and Senior Services and Human Services who are expected to respond to questions raised at a previous hearing regarding the waiver, the transition from Medicaid fee-for-service to managed care, and other proposed changes to the budget that could impact residents’ access to health care services in the state.

The Assembly also will vote on bills to regulate Botox usage by minors, allow retailers to offer coupons and discounts for gas purchases, increase Huntington’s Disease care and require more online government transparency. It also will consider bills to establish a defense for parking illegally in permit parking spots at NJ Transit stations, encourage the purchase of Jersey Fresh products, apply pay-to-play bans to county bridge commissions, combat Sayreville flooding, require proper disposal of state computers containing personal data and clarify that sexual assault victims are not responsible for the costs of forensic examinations.

The session is set to begin at 1 p.m.

As the day began in Trenton, clergymen and people of all faiths gathered at the World War II Memorial across from the Statehouse to pray “for legislators as well as New Jersey’s working families before the Assembly votes on legislation that would strip New Jersey public workers of the right to negotiate over healthcare.”

Speakers called for “justice, justice shall you pursue,” and protest that benefits’ bill is unjust. Speakers plan to lead the gathering in prayer and song before they begin lobbying legislators.