State lawmakers working to increase public workers’ payments toward pensions and health insurance removed a controversial provision from the draft law that would have set restrictions on out-of-state health coverage Monday.
That was enough to win the pension-reform bill approval by the full Senate and by an Assembly subcommittee, setting up a vote Thursday by the full Assembly before the legislation heads to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.
As 1,000 union members converged on Trenton with tents and signs for an all-day protest of the bill, state Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, Passaic, agreed to remove the restrictions on out-of-state health care. Party leaders saw the move as necessary to win over skeptical Democrats and at least one skeptical Republican assemblyman, Atlantic County’s Vince Polistina, whose combined votes are seen as vital to passing the legislation.
Polistina, one of the only Republicans to break ranks and voice objections to the reforms supported by Christie, said this weekend that controlling where public employees can get medical care is “flat-out wrong.”
Two hours before a scheduled hearing on the bill, leaders rewrote key language to remove limits on when public workers could seek care at hospitals across state lines.
What remained was a bill that asks public employees to make greater contributions to pensions and benefits, and excludes health care from collective bargaining deals until 2014. The full Senate approved the bill 24-15, with one abstention.
Separate emergency legislation passed Monday would allow state employees to choose between different-tiered health plans with different in-state and out-of-state rules.
Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he had spoken to Sweeney repeatedly about making the change.
“I had reservations, which I raised with leadership,” Whelan said.
The emergency legislation, which passed the Senate 24-14 on Monday, “was worked on Saturday and Sunday,” he said.
“I am gratified that the leadership in Trenton listened to my concerns and worked through the weekend to address them,” Polistina said. “Given my own experiences with needing out-of-state, specialized care for my children, any provision that would significantly restrict out-of-state health care for public employees and their families was a nonstarter for me.”
However, Polistina said he still has concerns to address before the bill is put up for a full Assembly vote Thursday.
“I remain concerned about the current amendment requiring doctors to sign a certification approving out-of-state care, and have reached out to some doctors in our area to discuss these issues directly with them so that I can completely understand this new legislation before casting my vote,” Polistina said.
Some of the public-worker union members who came to Trenton on Monday struggled to keep pace with news of the fast-moving changes. Many said they had come to protest the out-of-state provision, and brought heartrending tales of choices they made in life-or-death situations.
Frank Pileiro, a teacher in Linwood, described choosing to bring his adopted baby daughter to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to receive treatment for a lifelong blood disorder, one of just nine hospitals to offer that comprehensive treatment.
“Think about the effect on the faces,” he said, gesturing to the crowd. “Not just the dollars.”
By that point, the Senate had already approved the full measure, including the emergency legislation adjusting the out-of-state provision.
But Assembly lawmakers on the budget committee listened to testimony for eight more hours before voting 7-5 to release the bill after 8 p.m.
Kathleen Davis, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, faced a hostile crowd as she told the committee that asking for greater contributions from public employees was a “no-brainer.”
A crowd member interrupted her testimony, shouting an expletive, and was quickly ordered out of the room by state troopers.
Long Beach Township Police Officer Kevin Lyons, who is administrator of the state PBA’s Legal Protection Plan, said he was inside state Senate chambers when the vote was cast. Lyons said the gallery was packed with members of law enforcement.
If the pension reform legislation is passed by the Assembly, Lyons said, it will cost him $9,000 a year.
“We’ll have to see how strong the resolve is and how upset public employees are in November. That’s when they’ll hear from us.” Lyons said. “That’s not a threat, it’s the process. And no, I won’t vote for anyone who voted for this.”
Sweeney, speaking mid-afternoon, revealed how close the unions and Democratic lawmakers came to agreeing on a deal to cap workers’ salary contributions for the cheapest health plan before weekend negotiations stalled.
“They were close, but they were miles away,” Sweeney said.
Christie, in a written statement, praised the bipartisan effort that led to the Senate’s passage of the bill.
“As a result of Democrats and Republicans coming together to confront the tough issues, we are providing a sustainable future for our pension and health benefit system, saving New Jersey taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and securing a fiscally responsible future for our state.”
Police and Firemen Retirement System pension trustee Wayne Hall said he also was at the Statehouse and believed lawmakers were moving too quickly and with too many questions still not answered.
“Even during the hearings, there were questions they had that weren’t answered, and I don’t see how you can vote on something when you don’t have all the answers,” Hall said.
Staff Writer Donna Weaver contributed to this report.
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