Democrats say Corzine turnabout threatens reform. Codey, Roberts insist lawmakers felt duped

Democrats say Corzine turnabout threatens reform
Codey, Roberts insist lawmakers felt duped

December 09, 2006 Star Ledger

Gov. Jon Corzine's abrupt refusal to support legislation trimming public employee benefits makes it less likely the Legislature can muster the votes to adopt other controversial measures aimed at reining in property taxes, top lawmakers said yesterday.

"It certainly makes the climate a lot harder," Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) said during a joint appearance with Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) before The Star-Ledger editorial board yesterday. "Some attitudes and opinions have changed."

The leaders said Democrats who had backed a reform bill in the face of union opposition felt duped after Corzine on Thursday said he wanted them to strip out every element that would affect government workers covered by collective bargaining agreements.

"I think there is a fair amount of frustration on the part of members that they extended themselves, demonstrated courage, and it has not led to where it should, in the short term," Roberts said.

Corzine said yesterday he was not attempting to derail pension and benefit reforms, but to shift the discussion of key changes out of the Statehouse and onto the contract bargaining table, where he said they rightly belong.

He acknowledged that places squarely on his shoulders the burden of delivering what he estimated as "hundreds of millions of dollars" of savings that could result from changes in health, retirement and other benefits for state and local public employees. The administration is currently bargaining with public worker unions for new contracts to take effect July 1.

"I'm going to have to stand responsible for what we come up with in the collective bargaining contract," Corzine said after a speech to county officials at a breakfast meeting in Trenton. "It's very clear we intended to deal with many, if not all, of those issues."

Corzine said any last-minute confusion over details in the pension reform bill was his fault. "There was some breakdown in communication," he said. "I'll take the responsibility for not being as detailed as we should have been when we talked about some big picture items."

Codey and Roberts said that as a result, they are now finding it harder to persuade lawmakers to continue backing other pending reform measures, such as plans to impose new oversight and limits on local school boards. Those plans are critical elements of the Legislature's ongoing efforts to pare down local government costs and control soaring property tax bills.

An early test of the Legislature's resolve will come Monday, when the full Senate and Assembly are scheduled to consider nine property tax reform measures as thousands of teachers and unionized workers rally in protest outside the Statehouse.

The bills include two particularly contentious measures: one (A15) that would set up a commission to identify school districts and town governments that should be eliminated through consolidation, and another (A4) to establish county-level school superintendents with veto power over local school budgets.

Codey said yesterday lawmakers may have to postpone consideration of the bills if lawmakers spooked by Corzine's action on the pension bill (A2) decline to support them.

The governor, a staunch supporter of labor, said yesterday criticisms that he had "watered-down" the pension bill because he had already "caved in" to union demands were merely political spin.

"It's premature to say whether I caved in until you get a collective bargaining contract," Corzine said. He predicted "weeks, maybe months of hard work ahead" as negotiations continue.

He said that if benefit reforms aren't made through the collective bargaining process, unionized public employees won't "buy in" to the changes, and that could ultimately compromise their long-term success.

The governor also said the deletions he called for on Thursday removed only "a narrow slice" of the potential cost savings. Those provisions would be worth about $20 million, he said, while much larger savings could be realized by negotiating changes in health, pension and other benefits at the bargaining table. He said getting workers to shoulder a larger portion of their health care costs, for example, would save $75 million in the first year and up to $700 million in 15 years.

Corzine said he also supported the portions of the bill that would reform pension policies for elected and appointed officials.

He said the state will not be able to finance the 20 percent tax relief package Codey and Roberts have promised "unless we get some serious addressing in there of the basic cost structure of how we deliver pensions and benefits in this state."

The governor and the legislative leaders are still hammering out particulars of their tax credit plan. Codey and Roberts said yesterday their proposal carries a price tag of $1.94 billion. It aims to offer 20 percent property tax credits to all homeowners making up to $100,000 and 15 percent reductions in the bills for homeowners earning between $100,000 and $200,000.

For an additional $65 million, they said, the program could be extended to offer 10 percent property tax cuts to all homeowners earning up to $250,000.

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