(TRENTON) — Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Nellie Pou’s opening remarks, as prepared, at Thursday’s hearing on Assembly’s 5-bill package reforming public worker pensions and health benefits:

“Nearly 4 years ago, we gathered here at the State House to begin our work addressing this state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes.

“Throughout that special session process, we were consistently urged to confront the status quo and reform the benefits that this state has provided for elected officials and appointed officials.

“That effort — co-chaired by myself and Sen. Scutari — set in motion a litany of long-overdue reforms that were a key step toward ensuring that the state’s benefits system worked as originally intended: to serve the dedicated, career public employees who work in the trenches of government service.

“We made significant progress with legislation that marked a pivotal first step at fixing the benefits system.

“We signaled to taxpayers and public employees that we had the will to fix abuses and problems in our own backyard.

“We curtailed pension boosting, pension tacking and pension padding practices.

“We imposed a ban on dual elective office holding for newly elected public officials.

“We created a new 401(k)-style defined contribution program for all newly elected and appointed officials.

“We immediately removed professional service contractors from participating in the public pension system.

“We capped sick leave payout amounts at $15,000 for appointed and elected officials and limited accrual of vacation time to one year.

“We demonstrated that we had the desire and the fortitude to clean up our own house first.

“We followed that up with legislation that, among other things, raised the public employee retirement age to 62, mirroring the federal Social Security retirement age.

“But still our work remained unfinished.

“A recent report from the state Division of Pensions and Benefits estimated that the unfunded liabilities of the state pension system rose $12 billion to $46 billion between June 30, 2008 and June 30, 2009.

“The market value of the pension funds plunged by $17 billion to $66 billion during the same period.

“Numbers like that highlight this simple and undeniable fact — our system is unsustainable for taxpayers and public workers alike.

“Everyone needs to recognize the enormous unfunded liabilities in the public employee benefits system.

“No matter what your point of view, the time for blame and finger-pointing is long past.

“The mistakes made on all sides of this issue cannot be undone.

“But what everyone can do is work together to ensure that we make changes that are fair to both taxpayers who fund the system and public workers who rely on it.

“So here today we will be considering several measures that aim to save New Jersey taxpayers money and make the benefit system sustainable for public workers.

“This is a key step toward fixing our broken pension and benefit system with a comprehensive package that’s been studied and analyzed to ensure it will result in saving taxpayer money.

“I will say it again, because I cannot emphasize it enough — our system is unsustainable for both taxpayers and public workers.

“But with this expanded and sweeping bipartisan Assembly package we will bring real reform and relief to taxpayers and create a more reliable system for public workers.

“I also must emphasize this and emphasize it strongly — these reforms are not an attack on our public workers.

“During the ongoing debate about public worker benefits, we’ve heard a lot of demonization of public workers and blaming them for the problems we face as a state.

“I am, quite frankly, tired of it.

“We’re talking here about the teachers who educate our children…

…the police officers who protect us…

…the firefighters who save us…

…the emergency medical technicians who provide urgent health care…

…the school nurse who ensures our children are safe at school…

…the animal control officer who responds at all hours and in all weather to keep our communities safe…

…the plow driver who keeps our roads clear…

…the people who thanklessly collect our garbage…

…and these are just a few examples.

“I’m here today to say these people are not the enemy.

“They are working class New Jerseyans who work hard just like everyone else to earn a living and keep our communities strong and safe.

“We are not making these reforms because they are the villains.

“We are making these reforms to keep their benefits system strong and to bring savings to taxpayers.

“It is that basic.

“So we will consider several bills today and are prepared to discuss each one in depth, but here is a quick review.

“We have bills that would:

  • Make numerous changes to public worker pensions (A-2461);
  • Make numerous changes to public worker health benefits (A-2460);
  • Make numerous changes to other public employee benefits (A-2459);
  • Prohibit lobbyists from enrolling in the state pension and benefits system (A-2499); and
  • Limit the salaries and benefits for officer and workers at state and local authorities (A-2505).

“These are common sense reforms that will protect rank-and-file public workers from seeing the pensions and health benefits they rely on from being eroding away.

“These are reforms that will protect taxpayers.

“I know this committee looks forward to hearing testimony in the coming hours from everyone wishing to offer it.

“But I also must again emphasize that I do not want to hear testimony casting blame.

“I want to hear testimony on the bills and thoughts on reforms, because no one can say that change is unnecessary.”

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