TRENTON — Democratic legislative leaders today proposed a 2 percent cap on raises police officers and firefighters can get from arbitrators, a change that would expire after three years and not cover costs for health benefits.
One month after announcing a similar breakthrough, only to see it wither after lacking support among Assembly Democrats, the legislative leaders said they intend to send the arbitration bill to Gov. Chris Christie on Dec. 13.
"I don't think anyone today, any mayor in the state, would dream that we could ever possibly have gotten as far as we've gotten," said Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester. "This is light years away, it's revolutionary, the changes to binding arbitration."
Arbitration and civil-service reforms are the two biggest proposals in the "tool kit' Christie and mayors have been pushing lawmakers to adopt, saying it would help local governments control costs and meet a new 2 percent property tax cap.
Christie said he'd be willing to negotiate with lawmakers over the proposal's details in private but blasted today's announcement for lacking specificity.
"This proposal is probably the same kind of cap that the Democrats passed when Jon Corzine was here, full of holes like a piece of Swiss cheese that will allow the special interests to continue to get more and more money out of the taxpayers," Christie said.
Christie said he'd conditionally veto "watered-down relief" that didn't meet his goals. His version of the plan doesn't expire after three years and includes costs for things such as health benefits within the cap, he said.
"The tool kit has to happen. Not the watered-down tool kit has to happen. Not the tool kit written by special interests has to happen. The tool kit, which was my tool kit, has to happen. They promised. They better deliver," Christie said.
Sweeney said health benefits and pension costs aren't included under the 2 percent property tax cap that takes effect Jan. 1 and therefore shouldn't be in the arbitration cap.
"That's not the same cap that we put on the towns. When we put the cap on the towns, we took health and pension costs out. So why would we impose them in on this cap? There was an issue of fairness," Sweeney said.
A summary of the bill says it would bar arbitrators from awarding contracts where the average salary increase exceeds 2 percent. But a three-year contract would be allowed to award raises of 0 percent, 1 percent and 4 percent, which wouldn't have been permitted under the original Republican plan. The cap would cover longevity, length-of-service and other salary increments.
Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon Jr., R-Monmouth, said the Democrats' proposal wouldn't fix the system because it would sunset in three years. He predicted labor contracts expiring a year or two after such a cap takes effect would be made shorter so they'd expire just as the cap did.
"Their reform is not real reform at all. It's merely a very brief 2 percent salary cap. It's not real arbitration reform. It's a disgraceful skirting of the issue, quite frankly," O'Scanlon said. "Either they are very happy panderers, or they don't understand the policy."
Public-safety unions were consulted as the proposal was developed and said they're supportive.
Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey State Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association, called the proposal "a fair compromise...that's not certainly a bill we love to any degree." He said an arbitration cap can't cover health-care.
"That would guarantee a continual reduction in our salary, versus an opportunity to actually get a raise. That's a huge difference," Lavin said. "An all-inclusive cap of all expenses reduces our salary on a continual basis, and we think that's unfair."
Christie blasted Democrats for refusing to share their proposal with him in advance of releasing it publicly, but Democrats insisted they tried to arrange to meet with him Monday.
"The Senate president and I attempted to meet with the governor yesterday, but he had a very packed-in schedule," said Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, D-Essex. "Because we did want to describe for the governor what we were able to accomplish. I think this bill represents all of the elements that Gov. Christie had concerns with."
Christie said Oliver was "'not telling the truth" about asking for a meeting.
"Lie. Never came down here. Never tried to speak to me," Christie said. "I got here about 11 o'clock yesterday morning, 11:30, after my Hackettstown event, and was here until 6:45. The speaker never came down here. She never asked for a meeting. Untrue."
The executive director of the Assembly Democrats' office, Bill Caruso, showed reporters e-mails dated Monday addressed to Christie's deputy chief counsel, Kevin O'Dowd, requesting a meeting. Caruso said those went unanswered.