Lawmakers still squabble over police, fire arbitration limit
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The New Jersey law that limits the pay raises that police and firefighters can receive in arbitration is just days away from expiring. But its fate remains up in the air amid a political battle over whether the law is needed.
A look at the issue:
WHAT IS THE ARBITRATION CAP?
Police and firefighters are barred by law from going on strike. So when a public employer can’t reach a contract agreement with their unions, an arbitrator is called in to decide the terms of the contract.
The “arbitration cap,” as bureaucrats call it, now limits at 2 percent the increases that an arbitrator can award in contract disputes. It’s due to expire Sunday, the last day of the year.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie has cast the arbitration limit as a major factor in keeping a lid on rising property taxes, already the highest in the county. His administration says data show that the police and fire salary limit has saved taxpayers $530 million.
It was enacted in 2010 and then re-upped in 2014, a few months after it had expired. Christie has said he would sign a measure renewing the limit if it is approved by lawmakers during the lame duck legislative session that ends Jan. 9, when the new Legislature is sworn in. But Democratic leaders have shown no sign they will push to get it extended.
Democratic leaders of the Legislature say they want to wait for Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy to decide how to proceed.
Murphy says he won’t decide until a bipartisan report from a commission studying the limit issues a final report. The GOP-appointed members of that commission released the report over Democrat-picked panelists’ objections in September. The preliminary document concluded that the measure was a success, but Murphy says it’s not complete.
Democratic-appointed members of the commission tasked with writing the report have said it seems unlikely that the report is forthcoming. Without action, the cap expires.
Republican lawmakers have backed the bid to renew the cap, saying that taxpayers were failed by the arbitration process that was in place before it was implemented. They also believe the limit encourages serious collective bargaining and has played a role in keeping down property tax increases.
New Jersey’s police and firefighters are among the highest paid in the nation, supported by town budgets financed by property taxes.
Many local government leaders believe municipalities and counties will struggle to stay within a 2 percent overall limit on spending increases unless the arbitration limit is renewed.
UNIONS AND OUTSIDE INTERESTS
Business and government lobbying groups have pushed lawmakers to lock in the cap, saying it helps keep property taxes in check.
The groups say that if it isn’t renewed, public safety salaries will soar and local governments will have to scramble to cut services or raise revenue to keep within a 2 percent limit on spending increases.
Labor leaders say the vast majority of contracts are settled through voluntary negotiations, noting the number of disputes taken to arbitration has fallen steeply since the cap was installed. There were nine such cases last year. They argue that the cap isn’t necessary and that contract settlements should be negotiated between towns and local unions.
But cap supporters say the reason arbitration cases are down is because union officials know they can’t win more than 2 percent increases going that route.
The New Jersey League of Municipalities has said that at least 100 public safety municipal contracts are about to expire.