State Senate President Steve Sweeney, who always proudly introduces himself as an ironworker and union man, lasted approximately 20 minutes on stage at a panel event Thursday night at Rutgers University.
The reason: An angry crowd of union workers, who jeered at him and his fellow panelists.
Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said he didn’t mind — and that he’s ready for a fight.
The event at the New Brunswick campus, slated for an hour and a half, was focused on Sweeney’s economic policy, the Path to Progress report he produced in 2017.
Fellow speakers included Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Old Bridge) and Richard Keevey, senior policy fellow at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy — and a former state budget director. The panel was being moderated by Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers.
“It’s disappointing that they won’t let me talk, that they won’t tell the truth to their members; plus, history is on our side,” Sweeney said after walking off stage.
“Anybody that understands anything about finances knows they bankrupted their own pension system. And, look, the state had a part to do with it, because they weren’t making their payments, but you weren’t fixing this pension system with the state just making its pension payments.”
The problems start as far back as 1997, Sweeney said, and have followed through until today.
“There’s 9 million people in the state, 20% of them happen to be union members, half of them don’t agree with these people,” he said.
Sweeney added that the changes to the pension system he is proposing in his policy plan, which was boosted Thursday by a package of bills that reflect the ideas, have been similarly addressed in Pennsylvania — where the same unions haven’t fought back against the changes.
Sweeney then defended raising the Corporate Business Tax last budget cycle, saying that a straight millionaire’s tax would not have netted the state the amount the CBT did, and there would have been a shortfall rather than an increase.
Earlier Thursday, Sweeney dropped a package of bills that would address many of the Path to Progress ideas, including reducing the richness of health benefits state workers receive in order to help save the state money.
Currently, based on the Affordable Care Act’s metallic levels, New Jersey public employees receive platinum level coverage, which the state pays for. The levels below, in order, are gold, silver and bronze plans. Sweeney introduced legislation to make all health plans in the state gold plans.
This, he said, needs to be done to save the state money further down the line, both in terms of the cost of coverage, as well as a Cadillac Tax that is set to begin in 2022. The tax, a 40 percent excise tax on high-cost employer-sponsored health plans, was set to begin in 2020 before Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, a two-year delay last year.
If the plans remain platinum, the state would be on the hook for $600 million above what it is currently paying, Sweeney said.
Thompson said the ever-increasing cost of health benefits and the payments to the pension system could hurt programs in the state.
“Not only is there no money for new programs, it can reach a point where you have to cut programs,” Thompson said.
And pushing for a millionaire’s tax will exacerbate the problem, he said.
“We’re driving people out of the state as it is,” Thompson said. “In fact, when you talk about the millionaire’s tax … in the last year, 2,500 millionaires or so moved out between New Jersey and New York. Because of the increase in taxes.
“One of those people moved out because you wanted to increase your tax by 1.75%. How many people does it take to make up for it?”
Sweeney said that, although he has dealt with some level of protesting at previous rallies, Thursday’s was the worst yet.
“This was the worst because they had the noisemakers … but the frustration is, it’s not going away, and I’m not going away,” Sweeney said.
He also referenced his 2017 reelection battle, in which the state’s education union attempted to oust him.
“And, oh, by the way, you did try to take me out, and you didn’t,” he said.
“I’m still here. Because the people of New Jersey want this fixed. I don’t care how many rallies they have. I don’t care how many people they bring forward. They are not going to shut me down. The people of New Jersey need someone to stand up and fight for them.”
And, as a budget battle shapes up in Trenton, Sweeney says he is ready to face all sides.
“They can’t shut me down in committee rooms, they’re not going to stop me from advancing legislation,” Sweeney said.
“We’re ready for a fight; I’m ready for a fight.”