From the Star Ledger:
Frustrated by endless growth in property taxes and public worker benefit costs, New Jersey’s most powerful lawmaker earlier this year turned to a panel of accountants, economists and budget experts for help.
Their final report is out, and it includes huge plans for change in New Jersey, including merging school districts, adding tolled fast lanes and cutting government employee health care and pension benefits.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he’s trying to prevent New Jersey from confronting billion-dollar budget deficits in the near future.
“New Jersey is at the crossroads. In fact we’re beyond the crossroads. We’re in trouble,” Sweeney said at a Statehouse news conference Thursday.
But these recommendations are likely to face strong headwinds from public labor unions, local government and school officials and Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat.
Sweeney said Thursday that New Jersey’s fiscal plights and that of its homeowners are too great to continue on unaltered.
He and state lawmakers will take their report on the road during the summer break leading up to the fall elections to build support.
“We are going to get moving on this now,” Sweeney said, “because time is of the essence.”
The report draws an outline of the powerful Democrat’s legislative agenda.
It’s not clear which of these proposals will become legislation. Many will likely require Sweeney to recruit Republican lawmakers to push through proposals likely to anger unions.
Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, who sat on the panel, said many of the recommendations have been studied before but now there exists the “political will and courage” to move on them.
The proposals target property tax bills by merging the more than 300 K-6 and K-18 school districts into K-12 regional districts which typically have a lower per-pupil cost.
Under one proposal, state and local government and school employees employees would move to less expensive health care plans. Under another, future retirees would have to contribute to the cost of their health care.
A third still would alter retirement benefits for new employees and those with fewer than five years of public employment. The first $40,000 of their salary would be pensionable, but any salary above that would become part of a retirement plan that acts more like a 401(k) than a pension. Under another iteration, those same workers would be shifted entirely into that hybrid retirement plan.
These proposals would cut increases in pension and health benefit costs by a third, according to the report.
One plan would pledge the New Jersey Turnpike as an asset to the public worker pension fund — and add toll roads to pump new dollars into the cash-strapped pension system.
To raise more money, the state would create express lanes on federal highways such as Routes 78 and 80 that would charge motorists tolls for the convenience of driving on lanes with less traffic. Such lanes are in use in Maryland and Virginia.