Details, little nettlesome details, who needs ‘em?
A particularly baroque chapter of New Jersey politics closes today, as the State Assembly is poised Thursday to require significantly higher health and pension contributions from public workers.
Michael Powell on government and politics.
By itself, that is less striking than the fact that two Democrats, the Assembly leader, Sheila Oliver, and the Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney, will have revoked the right of public unions to bargain collectively for health care. They could accomplish this slap-upside-the-head-of-labor with the votes of a majority of Republicans and a minority of Democrats.
The remarkably imprecise estimates of cost savings from these health proposals, and the last-minute maneuvering, are nearly as baffling as the politics. Pressed to put a number this week on likely savings, Gov. Chris Christie’s treasury officials retreated into bureaucratic mumbles.
The Democratic leaders did not fare much better. Mr. Sweeney has been unrepentant about cutting a deal with the governor. Principle over politics, he says.
No one doubts that the pension and the health plans are deep in the red, and that unions needed to pony up concessions. Neither Mr. Sweeney nor the governor, however, appeared to make much effort to use the buying power of the union health plans to bargain down prescription costs and cut better deals with the state’s munificently appointed insurance companies.
The Communication Workers of America, District 1, put forward a proposal that it estimated might have saved hundreds of millions of dollars, with higher contributions, higher co-payments and greater use of generic drugs. Even if you take these numbers with a grain of salt, the proposal appears to offer savings greatly exceeding those of the state plan. And yet. …
“It doesn’t really seem be about a number of dollars — it’s more ‘we’re forcing employees to pay 22 percent on average’ for coverage,” says Robert Master, C.W.A.’s political director. “They are looking for optics.”
Then there is Mr. Sweeney’s last-minute sleight of hand. With little explanation, he inserted a provision that would have effectively restricted employees to in-state hospitals, by increasing the cost of out-of-state care.
The State Senate leader framed his plan as an exercise in state patriotism: “I say choose New Jersey,” he said the other day. “I actually find it offensive that people think we have substandard health care in New Jersey.”
Employees said nothing of the sort. Frank Pileiro, a technical coordinator in the Linwood schools, has a young daughter with a rare and incurable blood disorder. She receives intensive treatment 62 miles away at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and under Mr. Sweeney’s original proposal, her parents would have faced thousands of dollars in increased costs.
“I guess teachers are seen as an easy target now, but we can’t afford this,” Mr. Pileiro said in Trenton on Monday.
Unfortunately for Mr. Sweeney, his proposal threatened to turn his Democratic colleagues into Jacobins, and he faced a near revolt. So on Monday, an hour before the Senate vote, his staff scurried about handing out a greatly watered-down amendment. Now there would be a nonspecific, non-detailed in-state plan and a nonspecific, non-detailed out-of-state plan.
The Senate duly voted for these two typed lines on a piece of paper. Asked afterward about details, Mr. Sweeney waved his hand.
“We haven’t had the plan yet,” he said. “I can’t say it’s going to be cheaper.”
Now, as New Jersey’s politics are gloriously byzantine, and as Mr. Sweeney’s coalition this week ranges from Governor Christie’s mansion in plummy Princeton to the Democratic boss George Norcross’s fief in financially wrecked Camden, all sorts of accusations are flying. Mr. Sweeney, it is suggested, is doing the bidding of Mr. Norcross, an executive with in-state interests in hospitals and insurance.
Mr. Sweeney described Mr. Norcross as a dear friend and the accusations as cynical and hurtful. And no proof has been offered. As Governor Christie loves to remind audiences at his town hall meetings, however, this is New Jersey.