As Trenton lawmakers gave first approval Thursday to a group of bills to reform the state’s public-worker pension and benefits systems, Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, tackled the teachers unions, telling them their case for strong state pensions was out-of-date.

Shortly before committee members voted to approve three bills and a constitutional resolution, Whelan, who teaches in the Atlantic City school district, told hundreds of assembled public workers — including dozens of teachers — that state workers should no longer claim they needed large pensions to make up for low pay.

“I’m of a generation that that was true for,” Whelan said at a hearing of the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee that he chairs.

“Quite bluntly, when I began teaching — almost 100 years ago, not quite — we made lousy money, and you were always going to make lousy money. That was true whether you were a teacher, a cop, a fireman, any public employees across the board. We were underpaid,” he said.

As the state now tries to close a pensions shortfall of about $34 billion, Whelan reminded the crowd of how pensions had sometimes grown in lean times.

“There were times when raises weren’t given, but benefits were, enhancements to pensions were,” he said.

But he said times had changed.

“We no longer make lousy money,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is that public employees across the board in New Jersey make above what the private sector is paying, of comparative education and comparative time of service.”

An independent analysis by The Press of Atlantic City, published Dec. 6, found that police and teachers’ pensions are now higher than the typical salaries earned by workers in New Jersey.

The Senate concurrent resolution, SCR1, proposes amending the state constitution to lock in a state agreement to pay into the pension fund every year. Bill S2 limits defined benefits plans to full-time employees. S3 requires existing and future employees to pay part of their base pension amount toward health care benefits.

Under the fourth proposal, S4, the state would cap payouts for unused sick time — which often has topped more than $100,000 per employee — to $15,000.

Ahead of that potential change, numerous local officials in southern New Jersey have moved to retire and be paid for large amounts of unused time off. In Atlantic City, the city is currently considering $1.49 million in payouts for 10 retirees.

Meanwhile in Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean County, retiring police Chief Mark Siino will collect $188,176 from the township for unused sick time, vacation and comp time.

At Thursday’s hearings, community colleges, chambers of commerce and municipal representatives came out in favor of the reforms.

Among them, Christina Genovese, director of governmental relations for the Southern New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the bills package “plugs several of the holes” left after a failed attempt to reform the system in 2008.

She argued the Chamber was satisfied the bills would “result in meaningful, cost-saving changes.” But she also called for the bills to go further, asking whether employees and retirees could be required to pay a 10 percent contribution to health care premiums, rather than the proposed 1.5 percent of base pension.

Union members spoke up in loud opposition.

Barbara Keshishian, president of New Jersey Education Association, reminded Whelan and other legislators that educators had agreed to take a cost-saving health plan three years ago and accused the state of now breaking faith with that agreement.

“No one should be surprised that we are opposed to this legislation, which once again puts the burden on school employees for the state’s continued failures,” she said.

She called out Gov. Chris Christie for “unilaterally refusing” to contribute to pension funds this year. In addition, she asked how the new legislation would boost the fund if it prompted members not to buy in. Asking for the actuarial data to support the proposal, she said, “I’m a math teacher. Show me the numbers.”

During three hours of testimony, teachers came one-by-one to the podium, arguing their need for a secure retirement. Betty Gamble, a retired teacher from Ocean County, said her salary after 33 years was $70,000, and she had relied on health care benefits in a recent battle with cancer.

Meanwhile, Cara Holmes, a 25-year-old part-time secretarial school aide from Camden County, questioned why the state was looking to withhold pensions from employees who work fewer than full-time hours.

Holmes, who has cerebral palsy, said her 15-hour-per-week work earned her just $8,000 per year and already failed to provide health care benefits. But she said she paid into the pension system with every paycheck and was looking forward to a meager pension.

“It won’t be enough to live on,” she said. “But it won’t be a handout. It will be something I earned.”

Whelan used the Atlantic City district as an example of where pensions and salaries have risen.

“We have several districts, and I happen to teach in one — I’m not there yet, but we have teachers making over 100 grand. I’m happy about that. I’m happy that we can hear from the police and have police officers making over 100 grand as lieutenants or sergeants or whatever the grade may be. But we need to recognize that that rationale for very strong pensions, very strong benefits, that was low salaries — you had the security and so on — that’s not there any more.”

In taking the stance, he acknowledged his own career track record.

He said: “This is a difficult issue for me, as many of you know. Certainly NJEA (teachers union), and my colleagues here know, I’m a public-school teacher. My wife is a retired public-school teacher. So I’m in the system there and a beneficiary of it and so on.”

The committee then unanimously passed the proposals, the three proposed bills and one resolution. All but one, the Senate concurrent resolution, could go to the Senate as soon as Monday.


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