Thousands participate in a rally to protest a Senate Budget Committee hearing on employee benefits at the State House Annex in Trenton, Thursday, June 16, 2011. Associated Press/Rich Schultz

TRENTON — A state Senate committee Thursday approved a bill to change pensions and benefits for 500,000 public employees, but only after facing cheers, jeers and civil disobedience from an angry crowd of workers.

Led by Senate President Steve Sweeney, the state’s highest-ranking Democrat, four of the eight Democrats on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee joined five Republicans in approving the bill, which tackled two issues in one stroke.

Lawmakers hope the bill will replenish state pension funds, which are underfunded by $54 billion, to at least 80 percent of anticipated demand by 2040, and they said health insurance changes will save $3 billion in state, county and local costs for public-worker coverage within 10 years.

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Critical to the measure’s passage was support from South Jersey lawmakers, namely Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, and Sen. James Beach, D-Camden.

More than 3,000 union members gathered outside the Statehouse to protest the hearing within shouting distance of legislators.

Van Drew, in voting yes, told a sometimes hostile crowd of union members and workers’ rights coalitions: “All politicians love to be loved. They like to be endorsed,” but, he later added, “we have to make an adult, mature decision here.”

The bill, which totals 120 pages, would increase employee contributions to state pensions, raise the retirement age for new public workers from 62 to 65 and freeze cost-of-living adjustments in payouts until the replenishment is complete. The state would be required to make a pension payment of $506 million.

On health benefits, it would require workers to follow a new sliding scale of contributions in their premiums, and it would prohibit unions from collectively bargaining health-benefits terms until 2014.

That sunset clause is a compromise that Assembly leaders, including Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, Passaic, can present to skeptical Democrats in her caucus.

Sweeney immediately touted the 9-4 margin of the committee vote, but indicated he was already working to secure the measure in the full Senate, which is scheduled to vote Monday. He said he has a majority of Democrats who will vote for the bill.

Sweeney has already locked in support from Van Drew and Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who said Thursday he was ready to vote yes on the combined measure.

“I’ve consistently said we need to fix these systems, and also that the governor’s proposals went too far,” Whelan said by phone Thursday.

Whelan said the bill introduces a sliding scale of health contributions over time. Retirees would continue to receive free health benefits, and current workers with at least 20 years of service would get free health care in retirement.

But Whelan said he had met a constituent who earned about $24,000 at the Vineland Developmental Center.

“Part of her work is literally changing bedpans,” he said. “Under the governor’s plan, her health care would suddenly cost $6,000. Well, that doesn’t work for me.”

Appearing in Atlantic City on Thursday, Gov. Chris Christie asked a gathering of Atlantic County leaders to support his efforts, saying his and their motivations were similar.

“You were sent there to do something significant,” Christie told officials assembled at Bally’s Atlantic City for the annual New Jersey Association of Counties convention. “You were sent there to do the right thing for the people who voted for you, and all the rest of this stuff is temporary.”

Bob Master, representing the Communications Workers of America, said the day’s vote boiled down to “what threats (legislators) faced” from those he called “party bosses.”

The bill makes it much harder for public workers to seek health care from a hospital outside New Jersey, said Sen. Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, in a news release.

This is a clause that some union heads said would benefit George Norcross, a South Jersey Democratic boss who chairs Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

The two other Democrats who voted yes were Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an Essex County legislator close to County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, and Sen. Brian Stack, a Hudson County Democrat but known Christie ally.

Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey Firefighter’s Mutual Benevolent Association, said he remembered all the legislators who praised firefighters’ heroism and recalled how they had voiced support for emergency workers’ efforts after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks.

“I want you to choke on those words,” Lavin told Democrats on the committee.

In one of a series of testy exchanges, Van Drew told the crowd that the governor had made clear he would veto a pension-reform bill without concurrent health reform. Members of the crowd yelled back, “Then don’t let him.”

Outside the Statehouse, Chris Shelton, vice president of Communications Workers of America District 1, compared Christie to Adolf Hitler and Sweeney to a Nazi general.

Christie acknowledged the protests in front of the Statehouse, but said, “They may be unhappy today, but 10 years from now they’ll be looking for our address on the Internet to send us a thank-you card because we saved their pensions.”

An Assembly committee will consider the bill Monday, hours before it heads to a full vote in the Senate.

Whelan said Thursday that one union member had dressed up as a rat and went to his home.

“I wasn’t home,” he said. “But don’t come to my house and drag my family into this.”

About 20 union members went further Thursday and orchestrated minor civil disobedience during the committee hearing.

After a furious speech from Master, a crowd of about 20 workers in matching T-shirts rushed to their feet and linked arms.

“Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” they shouted, before switching to another rehearsed chant: “Workers’ rights are human rights!”

The protesters were escorted out by State Police, but numerous eye-witnesses said they were not cuffed.

State Police closed off an adjacent government room that was dubbed a “processing room” for the protesters.

The CWA said 25 members from five unions were arrested and issued disorderly-persons summonses.

Christie declared in February that changes to the pensions and benefits systems were critical to the passage of his state budget for fiscal year 2012.

That budget must be passed by July 1.

The bill will affect public school teachers, police and firefighters, State Police, judges, and state, county and local government workers.

For the average public worker — making $60,000 and contributing $900 toward health care — the yearly cost would jump to $2,056 for single coverage or $3,230 for a family plan after a four-year phase-in.

The CWA rejected an 11th-hour offer for a low-cost health plan that would have cost workers a maximum 3 percent of salary.

A survey of public and private employers by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation last year found that workers with employer-sponsored health plans on average paid 19 percent of the premium for single coverage and 30 percent for family coverage. Those in state and local government paid the lowest percentage — on average 9 percent of the premium for single coverage and 25 percent for family.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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