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Friday: Defeat for NJ Public Unions

How did this fly under the radar?  I blame joblessness on my own part and Anthony Weiner’s penis.

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers tonight voted to enact a sweeping plan to cut public worker benefits after a long day of high-pitched political drama in the streets of Trenton and behind closed doors.

Union members chanted outside the Statehouse and in the Assembly balcony, and dissident Democrats tried to stall with amendments and technicalities. Although they successfully convinced top lawmakers to remove a controversial provision restricting public workers’ access to out-of-state medical care, they failed to halt a historic defeat for New Jersey’s powerful unions and a political victory for Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

[…]

The bill passed the Assembly 46-32 and will be sent to Christie’s desk for his signature. Fourteen Democrats voted for the bill, while 32 opposed it. After the vote, protesters in the balcony shouted “Shame on you!”

Unions have blasted the bill for ending their ability to collectively bargain their medical benefits. Health care plans for 500,000 public workers would be set by a new state panel comprised of union workers and state managers, rather than at the negotiating table. A sunset provision would allow unions to resume collective bargaining after increased health care contributions are phased in over four years.

In addition, police officers, firefighters, teachers and rank-and-file public workers would all pay more for their pensions and health benefits.

Supporters of the bill say the state needs to cut costs because the pension and health systems are underfunded by more than $120 billion total. The Christie administration estimated the bill would save $3 billion in health benefits over the next 10 years and $120 billion in pension costs over 30 years. Much of the pension savings are from the controversial elimination of the cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, which unions have threatened to challenge in court.

The bill that passed will affect not only future retirees but *current* ones by eliminating cost of living increases. (People who think the Republicans won’t screw around with Medicare for current retirees should think again.  In fact, anyone who is not wealthy and is still a Republican should have their head examined.)  Some people might ask what’s the big deal but it’s already ridiculously expensive to live in New Jersey.  In my suburb, the median salary is $109,000/year and that and a quarter will get you a modest townhouse, barely. Those of us without jobs are really screwed but it’s not much better for people living on pensions when the property taxes soar.  We can thank Christie Todd Whitman for the pension problems.  I believe it was Whitman who shoved the burden of financing the pensions onto local municipalities in the 90’s.

There are many problems with the way NJ runs its local governments.  Frankly, there are too many of them.  This is the densest state of the union in terms of population and the state is carved up into thousands of tiny fiefdoms that are run inefficiently. Not only is there a lot of duplication of effort, some residents get away with paying relatively little. One middle class suburb might have sky high property taxes while a swankier suburb with higher real estate values pays substantially less in property taxes.  The difference is that the middle class suburb is a receiving school district while the Bonus Class suburb is a sending district that doesn’t need to fund facilities or staff for the high school.  Isn’t that conveeeeeenient?

In this state, it feels like the burden of funding everything is squarely on the shoulders of the middle class.  You educate the children of the poor AND the wealthy.  It’s a sweet deal if you’re rich and can benefit from the property tax version of the Matthew Effect.  The property tax issue and home rule problem here has been extremely resistant to modification.  But it doesn’t help that neither the state legislature, nor any governor of NJ I’ve ever suffered under, has made any attempt to make it fairer for the people most under stress by the tax situation.  The rich get richer, the poor get a lot of grandstanding but no real solutions and the middle gets the shaft.

Local government is expensive.  You definitely get what you pay for.  I would prefer a more equitable way to fund the state rather than the crushing property taxes that are forcing some of us out of NJ.  A higher tax on the rich is way overdue.  Municipal government overhaul is overdue.  Shifting the burden from property taxes to an occupation tax and a more progressive income tax is way overdue.  Loosening up the state’s bizarre liquor license laws to reel in more revenue is overdue (very few groceries sell wine, beer or liquor and very few restaurants have liquor licenses).

But year after year, the only solution that is ever proposed is to underfund the pensions and demonize the unions.  The politicians in this state are completely inept at ever addressing any of the problems that have plagued NJ since I moved here 20 years ago.  This is no way to treat your children’s teachers, or your neighborhood police officers or your emergency services people or any of the other people you forget you need until you need them.  Joblessness and a reduced income trickles down on the handyman, the cashier whose grocery store is closing and the piano teachers.  We all suffer when the rich rig the system in their favor and screw the rest of us.

A word to the stingy, MBA class suburbanites: When you go to the next Board of Ed meeting to complain about the budget or the fact that your bratty, overindulged kid has to walk on pavement to get to the bus stop, leave your $58,000 Lexus SUVs at home.  Driving them when your kid’s favorite social studies teacher is about to get the ax is in very bad taste.  I know, I know, no one will tell you this but I feel I owe it to you to let you know how crass, rude and insensitive it is.  You look like novo riche, status conscious social climbers and a school board meeting is not a place to do networking.

Did I mention  I am willing to relocate?

Anywhere but here.

The following is a statement from NJEA president Barbara Keshishian:

“Today marks a new low point in the attack on New Jersey’s school employees and other public workers.  With their action today, the 46 Assembly members who voted ‘yes’ sent a clear message that their promises aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

“By stripping even currently retired public employees of their promised and earned cost-of-living adjustments, these legislators signaled that no promise they make should ever be believed by any New Jersey voter.

“Retirees who count on their pensions for a modest level of security after a lifetime of public service will suffer because of today’s vote.  NJEA will challenge these illegal actions in court.  We cannot and will not allow this outrageous raid on retirees’ pension checks to stand.  This pension raid would reduce many retired workers’ pensions by 40% or more by the end of their lives.

“A legislature and governor who will raid the pension checks of retirees and the paychecks of middle-class workers but lack the courage or integrity to ask the very wealthy to share the sacrifice of even a modest tax increase are not the representatives of the people who elected them.

“Politicians who think it is acceptable to ask middle-class families to pay $5,000 more out of pocket for drastically reduced benefits but refuse to ask a $5,000 sacrifice from taxpayers earning $750,000 a year have failed in their obligation to represent the interests of all their constituents.

“Elected leaders who say they support collective bargaining but vote to undermine it as severely as this legislation does cannot be trusted or believed any longer when they claim to stand for the values and principles that working-class voters hold dear.

“Today’s vote was a victory for those who believe that America’s widening wealth gap and its growing preference for the wealthy over the working class are good for America.  For those of us who believe that democracy belongs to all voters, regardless of their wealth, today serves as a call to take back our government by joining forces with elected leaders and those who aspire to office who truly believe in fairness, honesty and genuine collaboration.

“We salute the 32 brave Assemblywomen and Assemblymen who opposed this attack on the middle class, as well as the 16 honorable Senators who did the same earlier this week.  The 200,000 members of the New Jersey Education Association will not forget the courage and integrity they demonstrated throughout this process.”