Sweeney To Make Pension & Benefit Reform Early Priority For New Senate Session

Senate Will Aim for Swift Action on ‘Unfinished Business’ of 2006 Special Session

TRENTON – The Senate will begin the 2010 legislative session by seeking swift action on measures that would complete the sweeping overhaul of the public employee pension and benefits system first proposed nearly three years ago, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney announced today.

Senate President Sweeney made the announcement following a meeting of the Senate Democratic caucus. He was joined by Majority Leader Barbara Buono, Senate President Pro Temp Nia H. Gill, and Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo.

“Unless we take action now, New Jersey’s pension system will implode, leaving thousands of rank and file workers penniless in retirement,” said Senate President Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem. “As a union leader and someone who helps provide health and retirement plans to workers in the private sector, I know that a promise of a secure retirement must be a promise kept. But the state will have no option but to renege on that promise for its public employees unless we reform the system. It’s time to finish the job we began nearly four years ago.”

Senate President Sweeney said he is seeking a dialogue with state worker unions, the Christie administration and fellow legislators to build common ground on the initiative.

“We owe it to New Jerseyans to move forward on pension and benefits reform,” said Senator Buono, D-Middlesex. “The state will never dig itself out of this budget hole or shore up its finances until we overhaul the way we provide for pensions and benefits.”

According to published reports, the various state pension plans are underfunded by approximately $30 billion. Also, due to the recent economic recession, the state and many municipalities are facing the possibility of not being able to meet their annual pension obligations.

Senate President Sweeney said the Senate will review several reforms proposed by the 2006 Special Session on Property Tax Reform’s Joint Legislative Committee on Pension and Benefits Reform. The bipartisan, bicameral committee made 41 specific recommendations to overhaul the current public employee pension and benefits system to ensure its long-term viability for career state employees. Fifteen recommendations were enacted legislatively; other reforms were achieved through collective bargaining.

The joint committee was the only one of four where all Democratic and Republican members agreed upon the final set of recommendations. Senate President Sweeney specifically lauded the efforts of Senators Nick Scutari, D-Union, Middlesex and Somerset – who co-chaired the joint committee – and Kevin O’Toole, R-Essex, Bergen and Passaic.

“The Senate must be prepared to tackle the unfinished business of the joint session,” said Senate President Sweeney. “Three years after the special session ended, applying its bipartisan recommendations is more important than ever.”

Among the concepts that Senate President Sweeney said the Senate must revisit include rolling-back a nine-percent increase legislatively enacted in 2001 which resulted in a significant increase in the pension fund’s unfunded liability, increasing the number of “high salary” years used to calculate pension benefits from the average of three years to the average of at least five years, requiring all part-time employees to enroll into a defined contribution plan instead of the pension system and allowing all current non-vested public employees to opt into a defined contribution retirement plan.

“Getting a handle on the amount spent on pensions and benefits will help governments at all levels relieve the tremendous fiscal stress they face now and in the future,” said Senator Sarlo, D-Bergen, Essex, and Passaic. “Taxpayers and career public servants can both come out winners from a system that is built on a foundation of common sense.”

“As with most things, our ultimate goal is fundamental fairness,” said Senator Gill, D-Essex and Passaic. “Our pension system was created to support the men and women who dedicate their entire careers to serving the residents of New Jersey. Out of fairness to them, we must ensure that no one be allowed to game the system at the expense of the public.”

Senate President Sweeney said he has asked legislative staff to begin drafting legislation on the remaining measures, so they can be introduced and ready for consideration by the Senate State Government Committee.