Few Assembly Democrats support Sweeney’s pension overhaul plan, sources say
Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2011, 8:43 PM Updated: Thursday, May 12, 2011, 9:20 AM
By Jarrett Renshaw/Statehouse Bureau The Star-Ledger
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, left, and Gov. Chris Christie.
TRENTON – With Senate President Stephen Sweeney set to rely on Republican votes to overhaul public employee benefits, the fate of the controversial plan may depend on whether Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver follows his lead.
Assembly Democrats met in private on Monday and few embraced the Senate President’s plan of combining sweeping changes to public employee pensions and medical benefits into one bill, according to three sources who attended the meeting.
The meeting was not called to discuss the issue, but it was raised by members who later voiced opposition about combining both measures into one bill and legislating medical benefits, according to the sources, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak about caucuses.
Oliver has not said what she plans to do. Tonight, she said in a statement: “The Assembly continues to be increasingly frustrated by the governor’s failure to show leadership and do what’s he’s supposed to do – negotiate a contract that both protects taxpayers and worker rights.”
The lack of Democratic support means Oliver would have to decide whether to move the legislation without the majority support of her party, a political gamble that would come as members prepare for fall elections. Democrats hold a 47-33 advantage in the Assembly.
“It would be a historic precedent that needs to be weighed carefully,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), who opposes the medical benefit proposals because he says they do nothing to control costs.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) doesn’t believe the two proposals can be combined into one bill because the state Constitution requires legislation to have a single purpose. Like others, he said medical benefits should be dealt with at the negotiating table.
Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-Essex) said Democrats should be unified on this issue. “We have always stood up for the working man, and I think we should continue to do that,” Giblin said.
Facing similar odds, Sweeney has lined up a small group of Democratic senators who said they would be willing to join with Republicans to help ensure there is enough votes to pass the bill, according to four sources familiar with the plan. Sweeney is prepared to move the bill for a vote before Memorial Day, sources said today.
Asked today to confirm the timeline, Sweeney spokesman Chris Donnelly said in an email, “The Senate President wants reform as quickly as possible and it is coming.”
Sweeney and Gov. Chris Christie are still negotiating the shape of the final bill, and sources were not briefed on the details being discussed.
If Sweeney and Oliver move forward without the majority support of their party, they are putting themselves and members at political risk, says Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University.
While unions don’t have the political clout they once enjoyed, Christie’s rhetoric combined with labor battles in Wisconsin and Ohio have awakened members who will be mobilized this fall, Harrison said. “Christie has energized a flabby, sleeping giant,” Harrison said.
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