Sweeney task force releases recommendations to rein in spending

A task force empaneled by the state Senate president worked seven months on a sweeping plan to make the state more affordable. With the ink barely dry, it’s getting heat over recommendations to consolidate school districts and revamp public worker pensions. Senate President Steve Sweeney joins Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.

Aron: Senator, let’s start with pensions. You want to end the current pension system for new hires and those with under five years of service. Do you think Gov. Murphy will go along with a proposal that will hurt the public employee unions that he generally has been so supportive of?

Sweeney: Michael, this isn’t hurting public employee unions, it’s saving their pension system. We can’t go forward and continue to spend what we’re spending. It’s going to break. And I think the governor has the state’s interests at heart, so I look forward to working with him on these things. Look, we were in different places on school funding, as you know. We wound up getting a bill we all agreed on. So, I look forward to continuing to work with the governor. You know, we have to address this problem. When we did the problem back in 2010 and we addressed it it was not enough of a fix to really fix the pension system. But, if we hadn’t done it then, the pension system would have been bankrupt in 2017. We’re out of time.

Aron: How about the Assembly speaker? Has he signaled one way or another whether he will back the changes to the pension?

Sweeney: Listen, the Assembly speaker told me he’s going to look at everything that we are doing and he’s open to coming to solutions because we have to come to solutions. I can’t speak for him, Michael, except that I have been in communication with him for this entire process.

Aron: Police and fire are not part of this — they would stay in the current pension system, for police and fire, is that correct?

Sweeney: Yeah, because they managed their pension systems over the years. They didn’t game their pension systems, Michael. When everyone else was paying 3.5 [percent], they were paying 8.5 [percent]. When people were lowering the retirement age to get more benefits, they didn’t game their system. When everyone got 9 percent, they didn’t play the game. So, they showed real leadership in willingness to take care and take leadership of their pension systems, where they’re actually fiduciaries and they’re going to manage their pension systems, so bad things or good things are under their watch.

Aron: Another major recommendation deals with school mergers. You want to take roughly 300 districts that are currently K-4, K-6, and K-8 and require them to become part of a K-12 regional school district. Is that politically doable? To do away with half the school districts in the state?

Sweeney: Is it doable? Sure it is. Is it going to be difficult? Of course it will be. But, when we spoke to Commissioner Lucille Davy about this — she was a part of our task force.

Aron: Former education commissioner under …

Sweeney: Jon Corzine.

Aron: Jon Corzine.

Sweeney: What we didn’t know, Michael, what we found out is, like, you have a regional high school. They might have five school districts sending their kids there. They’re all teaching different history, math and they’re not even coordinating education. So what we saw is this is actually an improvement on the delivery of education. We’re not going to close the school districts down. They’re just going to become part of that regional high school, which, by the way, that’s where community members all serve on that regional high school. But, then you have one focus of curriculum from K-12.

Aron: You say you’re not going to close down school districts, but superintendents are going to be eliminated in this process.

Sweeney: There will eventually be loss, like there will be reduction of superintendents, HR directors, personnel directors. There should be savings that come about from joint purchasing. Now instead of five school districts buying five different history books, you have one school district buying all the history books for the kids, and it’s all the same. So, you know Michael, it’s really a better delivery of education that we’re going for.

Aron: It’s called, “Path to Progress.” It’s got 36 recommendations. Another one is to take the asset of the New Jersey Turnpike and dedicate it to the pension system. Where does the Turnpike money go now, doesn’t it go to support transportation?

Sweeney: When we talk about assets, Michael, it’s about taking the value of the asset. We would put firewalls up if we were able to do these things without taking tolls. We don’t want to take tolls. We just want to take the asset of the turnpike fund, or other assets. Because, what happens Michael, just like we did with the lottery, as we transition from an old plan to a new plan, it takes 30 years. Like, if we did this new plan right away, 20 percent of the workforce would be in the new plan, which would reduce our obligation to the pension.

Aron: In 15 seconds, is this a conversation starter, or is this your agenda?

Sweeney: It’s a conversation starter to get an agenda done. And I want to thank Sens. Sarlo and Oroho who are the co-chairs of this committee.