Hundreds of public workers came ready to contest Senate President Steve Sweeney at his latest town hall.
“We’re not changing pensions for anyone who’s vested. We’re not changing them, we’re not touching them, so you can say it all you want and accuse us of doing that all you want, but that’s not what’s in the report,” Sweeney told the assembled crowd.
Sweeney continued his ‘Path to Progress’ tour at Monmouth University. He called for more savings, working to drum up support for policy reforms that he says will help fix the state’s dire money problems.
“We can ignore this, and we can blame everyone, and we can tax everything and raise all these taxes — we’re going to have to raise taxes $8 billion when the pension system goes broke, and it’s coming,” he said.
The linchpin of his plan — developed by a bipartisan work group of academics and policy experts — is major structural changes to the current pension and benefit system. It would include shifting public workers to a less-costly, hybrid savings plan and move health coverage from the current platinum level to gold. It’s a proposal experts estimate could save taxpayers $1.4 billion over the next four years.
“My question is, as a Democrat, how can you support that?” asked Asbury Park resident Harvey Cottrell.
“Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor did exactly that in Pennsylvania, the governor of New Hampshire did exactly the same thing, not by want, not because they desire to do this, because it had to be done,” Sweeney said.
“There is no way to solve our problem without dealing with those things. And those folks say, ‘Oh, they’ve paid their fair share and everything else.’ True, the taxpayers have paid their fair share as well,” Republican State Senator Declan O’Scanlon told the crowd. “I understand that we’re all taxpayers, public workers are taxpayers too, I got it. But the bottom line is if we don’t solve this the people who will suffer most are public workers.”
Sweeney gave credit to Gov. Phil Murphy for revving up the state’s pension payment and funding for school aid, but called for more aggressive steps. He added New Jersey is facing a $4 billion deficit by 2023 without it. This crowd, though, isn’t convinced the lawmaker won’t come knocking again for more.
“I have a hard time believing it. Both of my parents retired with full pensions. Both of them have seen the loss of the their cost of living increases. They’ve have both seen changes to their health plans,” said teacher Jeanne Coon-Bogath.
“If it doesn’t get done today, we have tomorrow. I’m not walking away from this. It has to be fixed,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney says the rest of his proposed reforms will be drafted by April. The budget battle, though, is likely to take quite a bit longer.