The South Brunswick Education Association is wary of a state proposal that would reportedly increase contributions to health benefits and pension payments for public employees. The Christie/Sweeney bill (Sweeney S2937) could be introduced today to the Assembly Budget Committee by Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald.
The legislation would reportedly require all teachers, state and municipal employees to pay 6.5 percent of their salary toward their pensions, which is an increase from the current level of 5.5 percent. That legislation could increase payments to 7.5 percent within seven years.
The New Jersey State Police, local police employees and firefighters would see an increase to their contribution from 8.5 percent to 10 percent. Public employees could also have to pay up to 35 percent of their health insurance premiums.
"If this legislation goes through in its current form it would have a significant impact with the way it's currently worded," said SBEA President Christopher Hines. "The current health benefits we have are the legacy of decades of negotiation with the Board of Education. Now that could all be undone by legislation that renders null all those years of collective bargaining.
"Public employees are paying the same taxes as everyone else. This legislation would result in a pay cut of several thousands of dollars for every one of us here. Like everybody else, many of our members are struggling to get by as is, this legislation would only make the struggle harder."
Gov. Chris Christie announced in a media release last week that he and other legislators had, after several months of discussion, reached agreement on legislation to reform public pension and health benefits systems in New Jersey.
“We all fully support this legislation and will work together to assure its passage by both houses of the Legislature and enactment into law no later than June 30, 2011," said a joint media statement issued on Wednesday night by Christie, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr. and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce.
The statement added that the proposed legislation "protects taxpayers, saves the public pension system for current and future retirees, and enhances fairness and choice in our health benefits system."
Hines said that it felt as if teachers and public employees were being made scapegoats for the state's budget problems, which includes a $54 billion shortfall in its pension accounts. Gov. Christie withheld a $3 billion payment from the pension fund last year.
"It feels like (teachers are being made scapegoats) sometimes," Hines said. "There's no question that in New Jersey there is need for property tax relief. But public employees are paying the same high taxes that everyone else does, we all feel this."
South Brunswick Township's pension costs are about $3.7 million this year, an increase of about $3.6 million over the last six years and an increase of about $2 million over the last two years alone.
"Over the last two years our pension costs have increased by about $2.2 million and our health costs have increased by about $700,000," said Mayor Frank Gambatese.
The South Brunswick School District also faces a projected increase to health benefits (includes health, dental and prescription) of $1.8 million or about 10.5 percent and a pension cost increase of about $89,000 or 4.8 percent, according to Business Administrator Anthony Tonzini.
, yet exacerbates the situation by not funding the pension system.
"Our total pension cost should be about $1.1 million," Gambatese said in February. "But we're paying $3.7 million because the state doesn't pay their pension obligation. When the state doesn't make their contribution then the actuaries need to be redone and it falls on all of the towns to make the minimum amount so the pension remains solvent."
Hines said the proposed legislation to increase contributions by public employees could have a significant impact on the next generation of teachers, as less people may be inclined to pursue education as a profession.
"It's certainly possible that this could dissuade people from looking at teaching," he said. "One of the reasons people get into the profession is for the benefits. If those benefits aren't as generous, then it's a possibility (that less people would enter into the profession.)"
Hines said the proposal has public employees worried about the financial impact it could have on their lives.
"We're very concerned, how could you not be?" he said. "Again, we're talking about legislation that would result in a pay cut of several thousand dollars."
A rally by state and public workers was held in Trenton last week to oppose the legislation, with another rally planned for today. Hines said the SBEA members weren't able to attend last week's rally due to school still being in session in South Brunswick.
Hines added that it appears as though the legislation is being rushed and he hopes lawmakers will slow down to consider the impact of the proposal.
"I don't understand why you would rush something like this," Hines said. "A bill that is this important, and impacts this many people, should be carefully considered for all of its ins and outs. I don't see why it needs to be rushed through without debate and careful consideration. We're talking about middle class people struggling to earn a middle class wage, and that's tougher and tougher to do these days."