It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, but in the end the pension reforms passed…but without a key element.
The provision allowing public employees to pay into a 401-k style plan ( also known as the “opt-out” ) went down in an amendment. It was this sticking point that led to a standstill on the floor of the Assembly Monday when Democrats emerged from caucus confident that the entire bill (S-2) would be held.
What followed was a series of closed door meetings amongst the leadership and the Governor. It’s funny because my life covering politics is actually a series of meetings behind closed doors that i am not allowed to attend. It’s kinda like the velvet rope clubs of my youth. But in this case, I am never on the list. So, we try and piece together what transpires after the fact.
here is what I can discern. The Governor and Sweeney appear to have reached an agreement early on for these reforms. Christie agreed to let Sweeney take most of the credit. And he should. Sweeney championed these reforms four years ago, but didn’t have a partner in the Governor’s office who would sign off on them. Now he does. So when the state’s top Democrat started hearing that there were some defections among the Assembly Dems, he started trying to roundup the votes. I’m told that Joe D of Essex County for example, had promised to deliver votes for the reforms that weren’t panning out.
Well, On Monday afternoon those closed door meetings began. And it finally took Speaker Oliver and Majority Leader Cryan meeting with Sweeney to get the Senate prez to agree to remove the opt-out. Sweeney seemed to view this thing as his baby, and didn’t want it changed. But the Assembly ain’t his house. And what is emerging here is a bit of a class divide. Dems see the Assembly as the last bastion of the people’s will. The opt-out is the only provision that is truly ideological. It endorses the view that maybe the idea of guaranteed government provided pensions is old and stale and needs to be phased out. And that troubled D’s who told me they were not prepared to allow it. Democrats believe in pensions and protecting working people. In fact, even some Republicans were troubled by the actuaries on the opt-out. In effect, they feared it would chip away at the health of an already troubled system and numbers suggesting otherwise were not all that clear.
So, a lot of political capital has now been spent. It was a more bruising battle than some had anticipated. You might even see Assembly Dems push back by forcing their Authorities reform on the Senate as they believe pensions were rammed down their throats a bit. Authorities targets more upper income people which brings us back to the class issue.
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon has introduced a bill that eliminates the 9% pension enhancement going forward ( something the Gov also wants ), but I’m told the Dems will need the bad taste in their mouths to dissolve a bit before they will even consider that.