Burlington County Times

Stephen Sweeney Is Trying To Keep The Sky From Falling

Burlington County Times — March 13, 2019

By Editorial Board

Senate President Stephen Sweeney has taken on the unfortunate role of Chicken Little, and even though he's telling the truth — disaster is coming — many New Jerseyans don't believe him.

Because the truth hurts.

The 3rd District Democrat from West Deptford is encountering that hurt at the town hall meetings he has been holding throughout the state. He's talking and listening to taxpayers while emphasizing the gravity of the state's financial crisis to those who either aren't aware or don't believe.

On Tuesday, for two hours, Sweeney swallowed another dose of vitriol from a loud group of public sector employees who oppose his proposed benefit and pension reforms.

He was booed and heckled in a filled auditorium at Rowan College at Burlington County in Mount Laurel, but unlike the hysterics of Chicken Little of yore, the Democratic leader was resolutely calm, telling those in attendance that the strong medicine for the state's ills is coming from economists and other experts.

"If we do nothing, your pension is going to go away," Sweeney told them.

This isn't a single acorn dropping from the sky that plonked Chicken Little on the head. This is a hailstorm that is going to pummel all of us. That is the prediction of the bipartisan Economic and Fiscal Policy Working Group, a task force Sweeney created last year to come up with recommendations for how the state can mitigate the financial catastrophe looming on the horizon.

Those recommendations range from more shared services for towns and school districts, to school district regionalization, to the controversial employee pension and benefit fixes.

Under that proposal, all new and unvested public workers would move from the current defined benefit pension systems into a new hybrid system similar to a 401(k) plan. Also, those workers would receive gold health care plans, instead of the current platinum. Plenty of hardworking private sector folks in the state would love to have either one.

Too much of the money in the state budget is paying for those expenses. Sweeney keeps insisting that it cannot continue, and that more money should be dedicated to mass transit, education and tax relief.

Gov. Phil Murphy is not on board. Yet. But he will have to change his tune. And of course, neither are public employee unions. Understandable, but unrealistic.

Local Sens. Dawn Marie Addiego, D-8th of Evesham, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Delran, who were members of the task force, were present Tuesday to provide support for Sweeney. But he had no problem staying on message, because the message is too important. He also challenged the audience to contribute.

"I came up with a plan. I get you might not like the plan, but then what's your plan? Tax millionaires?" Sweeney said.

Maura Collinsgru, a health care advocate with the liberal group New Jersey Citizen Action, suggested that the state is a big-enough customer to negotiate price reductions from health care providers. That's a sound idea and should be incorporated into the lawmakers' plans.

Sweeney responded that one possibility is to merge the State Health Benefits Program and the School Employees Health Benefits Program to reduce costs. Another idea worth considering — which he noted that labor rejected.

We applaud Sweeney and the other legislators for holding the town halls and taking the time to listen to constituents. We also think he's doing the right thing by delivering his message in a blunt and upfront fashion. Because when the sky is falling, there's no time to be chicken.

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