ATLANTIC CITY — New Jersey is at a “breaking point,” in a financial “death spiral,” Senate President Steve Sweeney told attendees of his latest town hall on his fiscal reform plan for the state.
“The good news is it is absolutely fixable,” he said.
Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, laid out his Path to Progress to local residents, state workers and education representatives Wednesday at Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus.
The plan, which includes reforms to the state pension system, health benefits and education, was introduced over the summer, and Sweeney has been touring the state since the start of the year to talk with residents about it.
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Audience members, who participated in a brief question-and-answer portion, were mostly cordial in their concerns about the impacts, and some had suggestions on improvements specific to the region, such as focusing on esports and taking advantage of the airport.
Sweeney painted a devastating financial future for New Jersey — pensions unfunded, $8 billion in tax increases, throngs of residents leaving the state — if something isn’t done soon to right the ship. He said he doesn’t care if people yell at him during his town halls.
“New Jersey’s worth fixing,” he said.
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Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science and law professor at Montclair State University, and John Froonjian from the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton moderated the sit-down with the senator from Gloucester County.
During the exchange, Sweeney, a former union worker, spoke candidly about his feud with the New Jersey Education Association, which spent ferociously on attack ads against him during the 2017 election.
“I didn’t want to have a fight, but leaders don’t tell people what they want to hear, they tell them the truth,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney clung to numbers throughout the event, such as a $4 billion deficit by 2023 or the 30,000 students leaving the state for college and cheaper tuition at out-of-state schools. He said because the state spends so much on pension and health care for its employees, it is unable to help state colleges lower tuition.
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He also spoke about a bill he announced last week to merge the School Employees Health Benefits Plan with the State Health Benefits Plan, a proposal he says could save school districts and their employees millions of dollars.
The legislation would be the first to address recommendations in the Path to Progress report.
Froonjian asked Sweeney to elaborate on his proposed hybrid pension plan, which would affect new workers and those who have less than five years in the system.
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Sweeney said the plan combines a defined-benefit pension for up to $40,000 of income with the remainder in an account similar to a 401(K).
“Obviously that hasn’t been met with great warmth either,” Sweeney said.
He said he knows his plan isn’t a one-day fix for the state’s finances, but he said it gets the state moving in the right direction.
He said he would mandate that towns that receive savings in their budgets from pension reform use that money for property-tax relief.
Sweeney also spoke about the merging of school districts into K-12 districts, which he said could cut the number of districts in the state in half and force a streamlined curriculum.
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To that end, Sweeney announced plans to introduce legislation soon that would mandate that all sending districts to regional high schools align their curriculum.
Atlantic County Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick said she presented Sweeney’s plan to the freeholder board and was contacted after by local leadership of the NJEA, who said they didn’t want changes to their contract legislated.
“They didn’t have a problem legislating their pension, health benefits,” Sweeney quipped back.
In addition to the Path to Progress report, Sweeney addressed some regional concerns. Atlantic City resident Tom Foley lambasted Sweeney for the state’s involvement in Atlantic City since casinos were legalized. He said the local fire and police departments are “falling apart,” roads are in disrepair and the state continues to benefit off the backs of city residents.
“Everything is going downhill, and it’s because of the state of New Jersey,” Foley said.
Sweeney said Foley was right but that Atlantic City must take some of the blame for its financial problems.
“Look in a mirror, because it takes two to tango and people abused the government down here,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney also touched on his proposal for the Port Authority to take control of Atlantic City International Airport. He said the region could benefit from the expertise and pull of “the largest airport operator in the world.”