Sweeney blocks bill to lower public worker health care costs, boost benefits

Daniel J. Munoz//February 5, 2019//

Sweeney blocks bill to lower public worker health care costs, boost benefits

Daniel J. Munoz//February 5, 2019//

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One of the state Legislature’s top Democrats is blocking a bill that would boost the benefits of public workers and teachers and allow them to pay less on their health care benefits, arguing the costs will be handed down to taxpayers.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, said Monday afternoon he will not schedule Senate Bill 2606 for a vote. The measure calls for eliminating Chapter 78, a Christie-era 2011 law that requires public employees and retirees to field a larger share of their health care premiums.

Those premiums are phased in during a multiyear period and depend on the participant’s income level. Any public worker contracts that expired after then-Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill have been subject to the Chapter 78 provision.

“I will not post the bill for a vote because the taxpayers of New Jersey deserve the major structural reforms needed to fix the fiscal crisis,” Sweeney said Monday in a statement. “They cannot afford it and public employees won’t realize any lasting benefits.”

Instead, Sweeney argued, the state should adopt a key proposal in the Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup’s ‘Path to Progress’  report, released in August 2018, which calls for shifting many public worker health plans from the equivalent of the Affordable Care Act’s platinum level of coverage to its gold level of coverage.

“I have reached out to the Senate President many times to discuss bridging the gap between his Pathway to Progress and the need for Chapter 78 reform as introduced in this legislation. I will continue advocating for this issue with my colleagues” Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-20th District, a prime sponsor of the bill, said in a statement to NJBIZ.

It is not clear whether Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, would block the lower-house version, Assembly Bill 4352, as his office could not be immediately reached for comment.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and a bitter political rival of Sweeney, has pushed for an end to Chapter 78 ever since Gov. Phil Murphy took office.

Murphy, an ally of the NJEA, said he supports ending some or all of Chapter 78.

“I’m calling on the Legislature to provide relief to firefighters, educators, police officers, and public workers from some of the most harmful effects of Chapter 78,” Murphy said in a September 2018 statement. “By supporting middle-class workers, we’ll help build a stronger and fairer New Jersey for all.”

S2606 also calls for reducing the number of hours a public employee has to work each week to be eligible for health care benefits. The proposal would also bar the “collection of a contribution” for an employee not receiving a salary or coverage.