New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) came to Seton Hall last Thursday to promote his new “Path to Progress” in a policy forum hosted by Dr. Matthew Hale of the The Edwin R. Lewinson Center for the Study of Labor, Inequality, and Social Justice. The set of fiscal policy recommendations will help was Sweeney sees as a looming budget crisis in the state over the course of the next few years, stemming from the state’s mismanaged pension and benefit system for public employees and municipal, county, and state government mismanagement.
Sweeney was joined in the forum by State Senator and Republican Conference Chair Steve Oroho and Ray Caprio from Rutgers’ Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, both of whom were part of the group that helped create the plan.
Among the recommendations is a plan to shift state and local government employees — such as teachers — and retirees’ health care coverage to Gold, a step down from the current healthcare coverage. Additionally, Sweeney hopes to change the state’s pension system for new and non-vested, non-uniformed state and local employees from its current status as a defined benefit system, which he called unsustainable in its current iteration, to a hybrid pension system which would blend the current system with a defined contribution plan, similar to that of which was implemented in Pennsylvania in 2017 for its state and local public employees. Sweeney hopes that this will help beat back the state’s ballooning billion-dollar pension liability which according to the Path to Progress Fiscal Work Group could leave the state in a $4 billion dollar budget deficit by 2023.
The plan also includes a guidelines for merging all non-comprehensive K-9 school districts with K-12 districts to cut down on the high cost of having numerous non-comprehensive districts in the state. Sweeney cited Bergen County as an example which has 70 towns but only one comprehensive K-12 district with the rest being somewhere between K-4 and K-9 distracts and claims that his plan would “improve the quality of education and promote efficiency” and helping municipalities share municipal services to cut back on costs.
The plan isn’t loved by all. Some unions in the state, such as the Communications Workers of America (CWA), have pushed back against the plan. The union’s state director told NJTV back in August when the plan was initially announced that “what we really have is Steve Sweeney once again coming to the exact same well he always comes to, which is let’s look at the civilian public workers and see how he can turn barely middle class jobs into not-middle class jobs.”
Seton Hall alumnus Jeremias Salinas (’02), a Woodbridge Middle School Spanish teacher who attended Sweeney’s policy forum, expressed concern toward Sweeney’s plan, particularly about how it’ll affect teachers coming into the profession.
“Our big concern is that the state hasn’t been meeting its required payments to the pension fund,” he said citing the way in which some past governors had skirted paying into and sometimes borrowed from the pension system, a problem Sweeney acknowledge helped get the pension fund into its current crisis scenario. “The money was there, but they used it for other projects such as transportation which is still a problem today. Look at NJ Transit,” he said. “As a teacher, I’m concerned we are not gonna have the same quality of teachers coming into the profession. If I tell you that you’re gonna come out of college with huge student debt that you’re gonna have to pay more for your insurance, that your pension is not guaranteed, that your working conditions are gonna be poor, how is that gonna entice quality people.”
This isn’t the first time Sweeney has faced pushback on pension reform, though. In 2017 the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, ran a hard-fought campaign to unseat Sweeney over his views on pension reform, taking the rare step of backing a Republican candidate for his seat. The race resulted in the most expensive legislative election in state history and Sweeney’s largest margin of victory, which he says he sees as indicative of his constituent’s desire for changing the system.
When asked about the political viability of his plan, Sweeney replied without missing a beat: “it’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen because it has to.”
Nicholas Kerr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @NickKerr99.