TRENTON — Assembly members Thursday night approved a package of changes to health care and retirement benefits for public workers despite a last-ditch but doomed protest by those workers and union heads.
Thirty-two members voted against the proposal, but they were outnumbered by the 46 Assembly members who voted in favor, facing loud boos from watching union members.
As the final legislative step cleared the way for Gov. Chris Christie to sign the bills as soon as Thursday night, union leadership damned what they called the betrayal of their membership by the Democratic majority in both houses.
Eight southern New Jersey Assembly members representing areas in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties ultimately sided with the bill by 7 votes to 1.
Republicans were expected to support Christie’s push for health and benefit changes — changes he argues will save the state money while restructuring the indebted funds to avoid collapse. But it was the support of Democrats, traditionally the party more likely to be backed by unions come election time, which made the close vote ultimately favorable.
Employees look set to pay much greater portions of their health care premiums, while the state’s pension funds will receive greater contributions from members and will kick in later for some future retirees.
Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, a member and more recently shop steward of the private-sector union United Food and Commercial Workers’ local chapter in Vineland, was the only legislator from the southernmost counties to vote against the plan.
“This was an emotional issue for me,” he said. At an afternoon caucus meeting, he said Assembly Democrats confronted leadership with what he called “dozens of vital questions about the controversial piece, health care.”
“It got heated, I’d say very heated,” Albano said. Speaking after the vote, he said: “These bills were introduced 10 days ago, and what happened here tonight is historic. You can’t do historic action in 10 days.”
But Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, who with Senate President Steve Sweeney, also D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, rejected the description of the caucus as “heated.”
“I’d say spirited,” he said, smiling after the vote went through. “Because I didn’t hear tension.”
Sweeney did not reject that some Democrats had feared voting yes, stripping collective bargaining for health care benefits from unions just five months before every legislative seat is up for election.
“At the end of the day, you can’t act by those fears alone,” he said.
Both Republican Assemblymen from the 2nd District, Vince Polistina and John Amodeo of Atlantic County, voted yes.
Polistina was the lone Republican to threaten publicly that he would vote no unless a controversial provision limiting cases where workers could visit out-of-state hospitals was removed.
“I was glad to play a leading role in this bipartisan effort to ensure public employees have the full menu of health care choices they deserve,” he said in a statement.
Albano’s Assembly colleague from the 1st District, Democrat Matt Milam, and Burzichelli’s colleague, Democrat Celeste Riley, a teacher, voted in favor.
They were joined by both Republicans from the 9th District, Brian Rumpf and DiAnne Gove, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic.
But unions have promised retribution to what their hecklers called “Christie Democrats.”
“The Democrats have abandoned us,” read a retired teacher’s handmade placard, designed to weigh on the minds of undecided Assembly lawmakers just hours before the vote.
In a crowd of more than 5,000 protesters, one familiar refrain voiced unions’ commitment to exact revenge on bill supporters in fall elections for state officials: “We’ll remember in November.”
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