Protesters drowned out the state Senate President as he pitched a plan at Rutgers New Brunswick Thursday night to cut state worker pensions and health care.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, ultimately left after just 20 minutes into a town hall meeting that was scheduled to last nearly two hours. Sweeney planned to tout a package of bills he introduced earlier in the day that he sees as scaling down the state’s public worker pension and health care obligations, cut taxes and reduce costs of local and state government.
However, the dozens of protesters cut off the Senate President, chanting “millionaire’s tax” and “shame,” they also blew whistles, booed and shouted.
At one point, a loudspeaker strategically placed near the podium began blasting Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” prompting the protesters to chant along to the lyrics and clap until a police officer rushed the speaker out of the room.
Richard Keevey, a former state budget officer and proponent of the measures, took to the stage to defend the proposals, saying they are desperately needed to help the state’s fiscal woes.
“How many people here were in the military?” Keevey asked. “Because if you were, you’d have the decency to shut up.”
“You can yell all you want, you’re not shutting me down. The people of this state need a solution,” Sweeney told the crowd.
“I’m going to continue to stand up and fight for the taxpayers of this state. Do you think this is scaring me?” he added.
One audience member wore a crown and burgundy robe and carried a golden-painted staff, dubbing himself “King” George Norcross the Third, a nod to insurance executive and South Jersey power broker George Norcross, one of Sweeney’s strongest political allies.
The “king” at one point rushed to the stage to confer with Sweeney, only to be blocked by the Senate President’s state trooper security detail.
The feud between Norcross and Sweeney on the one hand and Gov. Phil Murphy on the other, has largely played out in the Murphy administration’s scrutiny into the multi-billion dollar Grow New Jersey tax breaks, and how Sweeney-ally Norcross and those around him may have illegally or unethically influenced or took advantage of the program.
Both union groups opposed Sweeney’s so-called “Path to Progress” proposals out of concerns that those would diminish the public worker union’s collective bargaining power.
Murphy, a strong ally of the state’s labor unions, said that fiscal reform to the state’s public worker pension and health care bills would come from “partnership and collective bargaining rather than confrontation.”
Murphy has remained frosty of the proposals, and Sweeney’s introduction of the measures just as budget talks heat up and his push to get them passed before the budget deadline on June 30 could mean another showdown between the two political figures.
One proposal calls for scaling back pension obligations for state workers with less than five years of experience, moving them into a hybrid pension and 401k-style plan.
Another calls for public worker health care plans from the equivalent of a platinum level of coverage under the Affordable Care Act to a gold level of coverage – which means more costs that the workers would have to shoulder
Sweeney, meanwhile, said Murphy’s proposed millionaire’s tax would be a non-starter for next year’s budget.
The Senate President said he would unveil two constitutional amendments to go before voters – one dealing with his public worker health care proposal and the other with retirement – in an effort to force Murphy’s hand on the measures if he does not approve them.
Sweeney told reporters following the town hall that he believed the Murphy administration sent in the protesters – without offering any evidence to back his allegation.
“These are his supporters. Where do you think they came from?” Sweeney said.
The governor’s office did not comment on the allegations.