Christie still has work to do on benefits

Gov. Christie and the Democratic-controlled Legislature are wrapping up work on a law that purports to rein in unsustainable health-care and pension costs.

These costs were incurred, in part, because politicians made promises that wouldn’t come due until they were safely retired, with many of them collecting government pensions and health care for life.

But neither side should be patting itself on the back and saying, as Christie did, that he showed the kind of leadership that President Obama and Congress can learn from. That’s because Christie and the Legislature are not making considerable strides toward controlling employee costs. Mostly, they’re just sharing more of the costs with workers, who, like the government, have finite resources.

“As legislators, we’re shirking our responsibility to determine the main cost-drivers,” said State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), who opposes the plan. She’s right.

Under the bill, which the Senate was expected to pass Monday, with Christie ready to affix his signature, the government would continue to pick up the bulk of these benefit costs. Government employees, who now pay about 8 percent of their health-care costs, would pay between 3 percent and 35 percent of their premium costs, depending on their salaries. Both employer and employees would absorb premium hikes.

On pensions, uniformed workers would see their payments go from 8.5 percent of income to 10 percent; non-uniformed workers, who now pay 5.5 percent, would end up paying 2 percent more over seven years.

Of course, private-sector employers and employees have long been paying ever-increasing premiums for shrinking health benefits. Many companies have done away with pensions, opting for employer-matched or unmatched retirement plans. But that doesn’t excuse the shortcomings in what Christie has crafted.

What he and the Legislature needed to do was better control costs so moves to cut the government’s share for employee benefits won’t hurt the communities and businesses that can’t help but be impacted when workers spend less because their paychecks are smaller.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he has heard union leaders who argued that asking workers to pay an unknowable share of their health benefits, without addressing cost containment, is wrong.

He said labor-management boards, provided in the legislation, could do some of that work. But critics say the boards would simply be tinkering around the edges. More significantly, Sweeney promised hearings on cost control. We hope the governor steps up by lending the expertise of his administration to help solve this problem — that’s genuine bipartisan cooperation.

Christie and Sweeney need to acknowledge that their work is not done. They can show Washington what creative bipartisan leadership really looks like by tackling the complex task of controlling benefit costs — for everyone.