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Legislative leaders introduced a 27-bill package Thursday to institute reforms called for by Senate President Steve Sweeney's 'Path to Progress' initiative, according to Senate Democrats.

Legislative leaders introduced a 27-bill package Thursday to institute reforms called for by Senate President Steve Sweeney’s “Path to Progress” initiative, according to Senate Democrats.

Sweeney said the bills are designed to fix New Jersey’s fiscal crisis, restore the stability of the pension system and save tens of billions of dollars for taxpayers.

“The Path to Progress is the path to real, sustainable tax relief in a state with the highest property taxes, the second-largest unfunded pension liability, the second-worst credit rating and the fifth-highest overall tax burden in the nation,” Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, said in a statement.

New Jersey Business and Industry Association President and CEO Michele N. Siekerka said the proposed reforms would help New Jersey in the short- and long-term.

“New Jersey, more than ever, needs to act with a reform agenda that comprehensively addresses underfunded pensions and the rightsizing of health benefit costs,” said Siekerka. “If we’re to ever make this great state more affordable and competitive, and not address our growing deficits with increased taxes, the time is now.”

Sweeney said if the state fails to act, increases in property taxes, pension, health benefits and debt service “will continue to eat up every penny of state revenue growth over the next three years, crowding out our ability to make the investments we need to make to increase aid to growing school districts, expand preschool, fix NJ Transit, make college affordable and provide funding for social service programs that serve our most vulnerable citizens.”

The legislation was developed by a bipartisan Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup of economists, academics, government experts and legislators put together by Sweeney and chaired by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen; Republican Senate Budget Officer Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, Warren, Morris; and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, D-Camden.

The New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants also put out a press release Thursday saying the group supports the “Path to Progress” recommendations and legislation.

Sweeney has been traveling the state for months holding town-hall type meetings with residents — including in Atlantic City — to talk about the need to rein in the cost of government.

The legislation includes bills to:

Create a hybrid pension plan for teachers and non-uniformed state, county and municipal employees that are new hires or have less than five years of service. It would provide a defined benefit plan on the first $40,000 of income and a “cash balance” account on income above $40,000. Any excess earnings would remain within the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund and the Public Employees Retirement System to reduce the unfunded liability.

Merge the high-cost School Employees Health Benefits Plan into the State Health Benefits Plan to be run by an expanded Plan Design Committee, and shift all public employees from Platinum-level health care plans to Gold plans upon the expiration of current contracts. Public employers would be required to offer Bronze-level plans to employees with zero premium payments.

Require county school superintendents to develop regionalization plans to merge all K-4, K-6 and K-8 districts into K-12 regional school systems, fund regionalization studies, require all local school districts to coordinate curriculums and schedules with their regional high schools, and set up a pilot program permitting countywide school districts.

Require the state to administer and assume the cost of all Extraordinary Special Education placements above $55,000, replace census-based reimbursement for special education costs with reimbursement based on actual pupil costs, and assign and train administrative law judges to handle all special education cases.

Fund counties to appoint coordinators to expand shared services.

Contact: 609-272-7219 mpost@pressofac.com Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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