Melissa Tomlinson is a NJ educator, executive director of Badass Teachers Association, and a board member of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change. Promoted by Rosi.
New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney has what he believes is a plan to save the future of New Jersey, for the corporate millionaires. While listening to him speak at Rowan University these intentions became very clear.
There was truth in what he was saying. New Jersey is in a financial crisis, in a large part due to unmet obligations in funding the state pension plan. A brief history was given about how we got to this dire place, with a previous agreement to bond the pension that was implemented under former Governor Whitman. Former Governor Florio was even in attendance and stood up to admit that more poor decisions were made when the pension was healthy, such as decreasing the contribution amount and lowering the retirement age. Yet, to place the burden of correcting these mistakes on the backs of our public workers and educators cannot be the solution.
Senator Sweeney displayed an obvious disconnect with the reality of what people living in poverty face in this state. He expressed his belief that people that are poor do not spend the money that would further stimulate our economy, but merely put all of their extra money into savings. This theory was also coupled with the concern that millionaires are leaving our state at an alarming rate. While it is not really debatable that lower income residents do not have as much discretionary income to spend, his disconnect with the reality of what being poor actually means is alarming to see in someone that is supposed to represent voters. One has to wonder what the data would actually reveal when looking at where these two demographics of our residents spend their money. Those with money have the privilege of ordering online, traveling to other regions, foreign and abroad, shopping in higher end retail stores. One has to question whether placing the burden of our current issues on the public working sector will do anything to change that.
Specifically, looking at the the general ideas that Senator Sweeney has proposed, moving to a hybrid pension plan and reducing the quality of healthcare for public workers, we see who this proposal would impact the most. While Senator Sweeney stated that this proposal is not any sort of attack on any group of people, an educator cannot help but feel that it is. He clearly emphasized in his opening remarks that these changes would not affect anyone currently in the system. But, what his proposal would do however, is reduce the incentive for future generations to enter into the educational profession. When asked “What conversations are you having to make sure that we have programs in place to to prevent a future teacher shortage, as seen in other states that have made such changes to their pension and benefit programs, as well as providing more assistance to increasing the number of teachers of color in the classroom?” Senator Sweeney’s answer was lacking.
Senator Sweeney mentioned some of the recent programs that have been started around increasing the number of teachers in the classroom, but did not have any response to how to address the possibility of a future teacher shortage. This agenda has manifested in several states as we see this manufactured crisis causing schools to close and allow space for charter schools to open. If educators are going to continue to receive a salary that is well below the median salary for a corporate professional with the same educational background and years of experience, removal of compensatory benefits that they receive from the pension and health benefit system will certainly influence our youth to look towards other professions. The fact that the setting for this conversation took place at Rowan University, with one of the areas leading educator programs, is alarming.
The need for a conversation, a dialogue between all stakeholders, around how to address this shortage was emphasized by Senator Sweeney repeatedly. But when asked if he would post S-2606 to begin such conversations, legislation that would address the impact of the burden that educators and public worker experience as the result of Chapter 78 legislation, his immediate response was “Absolutely not.” One has to wonder if he really wants to an open dialogue at all. As a result of Chapter 78, public workers and educators have paid an increasing percentage for healthcare and pension benefits, one that has not been matched by salary increases and resulting in loss of income.
It’s time to stop creating top-down change that benefits those that are at higher income levels, and trust that they will infuse more money into our economy. It’s time to start with what will most benefit our residents that are impacted at the highest proportional rates. When we talk about “sharing the burden” a progressive structure of sharing needs to be implemented. Lowering, or even not raising, property tax rates does nothing for families that cannot even afford to own property in the first place. Giving corporate tax breaks away to companies that rarely employ community residents, or create community service programs does nothing to improve the quality of life for all.
Senator Sweeney’s Path to Progress “state tour” is not the forum for intaking real feedback that he is touting it to be. It is merely a marketing and promotional tour to justify taking away from our public sector workers and sell a plan to bring financial stability to the state in a way that will minimize the impact to our wealthier residents. After the initial question that pushed back against this plan, two more members of the audience stood up to point out fallacies in his reasoning. That seemed to be where he drew the line. It was suddenly announced that there would be no more questions and the forum was ended an hour early.
PHOTO CREDITS: Rowan event pamphlet: Melissa Tomlinson. Sweeney: Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger