TRENTON - Democratic lawmakers are pushing legislation that would remove a 2 percent cap on pay raises for police and firefighter unions in arbitration cases, allowing increases of up to 3 percent when it can be shown that higher health premiums or job reductions have produced savings.
Democrats say the bill strikes a balance between restraining property tax increases and fairly compensating police and firefighters. Republicans say it would effectively kill the 2 percent cap and nullify the 2010 law, putting more pressure on municipal finances and property taxes.
The current 2 percent limit on raises in base salary that a neutral third party can award when unions and towns reach an impasse is due to expire on April 1.
The Democratic legislation advanced Monday by Assembly and Senate committees would extend the cap through 2017, with the new exceptions. The full Assembly and Senate are due to take up the proposal Thursday.
Gov. Chris Christie reported this month that the average property tax increase in New Jersey last year was 1.7 percent, thanks in part to a law he signed during his first term capping property tax increases at 2 percent, with only very limited exceptions, including the need to pay debt service. The 2 percent cap on arbitration awards took effect at the same time.
The bill would also extend a provision in the current law that exempts bargaining units with negotiated contracts containing raises of less than 2 percent from the cap on raises if their next contract goes to interest arbitration.
"This bill is a cap-killing bill masquerading as a cap extension," Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said in a statement.
The legislation is sponsored by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who is a leader in the Ironworkers union.
With police and firefighters now contributing more for their pensions and health care, Prieto said, Democrats wanted to find a way to compensate them more while also keeping a check on taxes.
"We're trying to strike a balance to keep property taxes low but be able to compensate our firefighters and our police that - basically, they put their life on the line every day," he said in a statement.
Higher pay for police and firefighters means "more money that they can spend on goods, and it helps our economy," he said.