Burlington County Times

Sweeney Defends Pension Reform Plan At Town Hall

Burlington County Times — March 12, 2019

By David Levinsky

Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, listened to boos, heckling and worse from many of the public employees that filled the Rowan College at Burlington County auditorium, but the Democratic leader remained calm and on message, repeatedly telling workers present that the proposed changes were from economics and experts and were intended to protect their pensions, not cut them.

MOUNT LAUREL — Senate President Stephen Sweeney continued his town hall tour across New Jersey Tuesday in Burlington County, where he was greeted by a raucous crowd of public sector employees opposed to his proposed benefit reforms.

Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, listened to boos, heckling and worse from many of the public employees that filled the Rowan College at Burlington County auditorium, but the Democratic leader remained calm and on message, repeatedly telling workers present that the proposed changes were from economics and experts and were intended to protect their pensions, not cut them.

"If we do nothing, your pension is going to go away. I don't want you to come back 5 to 6 years from now and say 'what happened?' We're trying to fix the pension and come up with a solution," Sweeney said during the two-hour forum on financial reforms recommended by the bipartisan Economic and Fiscal Policy Working Group. The task force was formed by Sweeney last year to devise recommendations for how the state might finally address its seemingly endless financial problems.

The work group issued dozens of recommendations ranging from mandating towns and school districts meet to discuss shared services to regionalizing school districts. But most of the attention and controversy has surrounded the call for employee pension and benefit changes.

Specifically, Sweeney and the work group have proposed for all new and unvested public employees to move from the current defined benefit pension systems into a new hybrid system similar to a 401(k) plan. They also propose reforms so public sector workers move from so-called platinum to gold health care plans.

Sweeney has said the changes are intended to rein in two of the biggest cost drivers impacting the state's budget and allow it to continue to invest in areas such as transit, education and tax relief. However, his plan has not been embraced by Gov. Phil Murphy and has received an even colder reception from public employee unions who have pushed back against what they describe as an attack on benefits and collective bargaining.

The conflict was highlighted Tuesday night as angry workers challenged Sweeney and fellow senators Dawn Marie Addiego, D-8th of Evesham, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Delran, on the proposed pension and health care changes. Both Burlington County senators were members of the work group and joined Sweeney for the town hall.

Addiego, who recently switched parties to join the Democratic majority, was frequently targeted because she benefited from a new law approved last year that permitted her and a handful of other elected officials to re-enter the Public Employee Retirement System pension after they were kicked out because they switched positions or elected office.

In Addiego's case, she was enrolled in the PERS system as a member of the Burlington County Board of Freeholders but her pension was frozen in 2008 when she became a member of the New Jersey Legislature. The freeze was because of a 2007 pension law that prevented newly elected officials from entering the traditional pension systems.

Legislation sponsored by Sweeney and signed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie before he left office allowed Addiego and several other elected officials impacted by the law to re-enroll, thereby boosting their eventual pensions based on higher government salaries. Former Camden Mayor Dana Redd, who is also a longtime ally of Sweeney's, was the most notable beneficiary.

"No one thinks that's right, Steve," said a questioner at the town hall who also asked why Addiego was named to the work group shortly after the change in the pension law.

Sweeney responded that that the law was a fix for a handful of elected officials who were taken out because of an interpretation of the 2007 law.

"Every pension I've been involved in when you're vested, you're not supposed to be taken out. We thought they were taken out not legally," he said. "As of 2007, someone who never held office who now holds office, doesn't get pension, doesn't get health insurance."

He said the issue was being used by the unions to distract from the real problem off the growing pension and health care liabilities, which he said threaten to swamp the state's finances and leave no money for other priorities.

"I came up with a plan. I get you might not like the plan but then what's your plan? Tax millionaires?" Sweeney said, adding that a so-called millionaires tax proposed by Murphy won't solve the issue and will cause more wealthy residents to leave the state.

"When we tax more people, more people will leave," he said. "And with the (state and local taxes deduction cap) that just happened in Washington, we haven't even seen the problems that are coming because people can't write off more than $10,000 of their property taxes."

Maura Collinsgru, a health care advocate with the liberal group, New Jersey Citizen Action, called on the state to use the leverage of its 800,000 workers enrolled in health care plans to negotiate price reductions from health care providers.

"It's the price. Not the benefit," she said.

Sweeney responded that there were discussions about merging the State Health Benefits Program and the School Employees' Health Benefits Program in order to reduce costs but that labor rejected to proposal.

Afterwards, he said the town hall was an opportunity for workers and other residents to express their opinions and for him to listen. But he also insisted that many more residents are fed up with the state's high tax burden and want lawmakers to craft a fix.

"I'm giving people a chance to speak their mind. But I can tell you there are a lot of people who aren't here who are being affected by high taxes who are ready to leave the state," he said. "We're going to move forward and fix what's wrong here."

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