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The best way to address the rising costs of public employee health benefits is for New Jersey to pursue universal health coverage for all of its residents, Assemblywoman Joann Downey said in an interview with the Asbury Park Press.

Downey, 50, an attorney from Freehold Township, is seeking re-election this year in the 11th district with her fellow Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, 63, a union electrician and former Neptune committeeman and mayor.

The first-term Democrats bumped off long-time Republican incumbents in an election upset two years ago. Now, their Republican challengers, Rob Acerra, 52, an Ocean Township councilman and Michael Whelan, 25, a Red Bank councilman, hope to do the same. 

The four sat down with the Asbury Park Press Thursday morning to discuss an array of issues facing the district, which runs across southern Monmouth County including Democratic areas such as Asbury Park, Long Branch and Neptune as well as Republican strongholds of Freehold Township and Colts Neck. In the state Sentae, it is represented by Jennifer Beck, a Republican being challenged by Democrat Vin Gopal.

More: Beck vs. Gopal: How to cut NJ government’s bloated costs

Whelan argued moving to single-payer health care would be more expensive for New Jerseyans. He and Acerra said the solution for rising public employee health costs is to offer several health plans with different levels of coverage that lower premiums for both the employee and the towns.

Acerra said doing this in Ocean Township saved the town roughly $3,000 per employee.

Downey and Houghtaling said those cheaper plans will ultimately be more costly for employees when they actually try to use their health care.

More: Is Brookdale ‘dysfunctional’? Monmouth freeholder candidates debate

But Houghtaling said he doesn’t have an opinion on universal health care. He said the problems with rising public employee health care costs lie with insurance companies, and the state needs to more aggressively negotiate with them to reduce health care costs.

“Everyone seems to think it’s OK to have a 15 percent rate hike every year,” he said. “Maybe we need to lay the ground rules for how our health insurance is.”

Property taxes/school funding

Downey/Houghtaling: Downey said the school funding formula developed by lawmakers in 2008 is broken and doesn’t account for the needs in school districts today. She said she and Houghtaling have legislation that would create a commission to develop a new school funding formula that better matches schools’ needs today. Houghtaling said the state has “starved” municipalities for years, and legislation he and Downey have backed, such as the taxpayer bill of rights and assessment reductions for fire victims, will start to address taxpayer needs.  

Acerra/Whelan: Acerra accused Downey and Houghtaling of “punting” on school funding. He said the state should eliminate the increased funding for former Abbott districts, more fairly distribute that state school funding and regionalize to countywide school districts and reduce duplicative administration. Outside of school funding reforms, Whelan said governments need to cut spending, work to grow the economy and implement new technology that makes government more efficient. 

More: Who won the NJ governor debate?: Property taxes

Pension reform

Downey/Houghtaling: Downey and Houghtaling said legislation they supported that requires the state to make quarterly pension payments is a start to prevent lawmakers from avoiding that funding obligation. Houghtaling said lottery revenues also now bolster that funding. Downey said the state may need to consider changing to different retirement plans like 401(k) plans that are common now in the private sector.

Acerra/Whelan: Acerra and Whelan supported moving toward 401(k) retirement plans for public employees.

More: N.J. votes to spin off management for part of pension system

Arbitration cap

The 2 percent interest arbitration cap, adopted unanimously in 2014, is set to expire later this year. The cap kicks in when government and unions representing police and firefighters head to an arbitrator to settle stalled contract negotiations on pay increases.

Downey/Houghtaling: Downey and Houghtaling say they are waiting for a final commission report on the results of the arbitration cap before they decide whether to make it permanent. Houghtaling said he was bothered the cap only applied to police and firefighters. Downey and Houghtaling said they didn’t trust draft results issued by Republican members of the commission. Downey eventually said she would support a permanent cap if the final report does show savings.

Acerra/Whelan: Acerra and Whelan said the 2 percent arbitration cap should be made permanent. They say the cap has already provided significant savings for towns. Whelan and Acerra called the cap a “safeguard” that doesn’t stop the towns and unions from agreeing to higher pay raises in contracts.

More: Will ending cop salary cap raise your taxes?

Agreements on consolidation

All four candidates supported legislation to offer incentives to encourage towns and schools to consolidate. That legislation would also cut state funding for governments that don’t consolidate even though studies would show they could save money doing so.

Attacks of municipal records

Both sides took swipes at each other for raising taxes during their tenure on their respective town councils and school boards.

Houghtaling rebutted attacks on his record on the Neptune Township Committee, saying the township’s budget was more than $800,000 lower when he left the committee than when he was first elected. At the same time, Neptune endured superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene and massive snowstorms. 

Acerra was attacked for raising taxes during his tenure on the Ocean Township school board but said all school districts in the state have been forced to raise taxes.  

Whelan accused his Democratic predecessor of raiding Red Bank’s surplus to keep taxes flat during his election year. He said he agreed to increase taxes to replenish town’s surplus fund, saying “it would be irresponsible not to.”

Susanne Cervenka: 732-643-4229; scervenka@gannettnj.com

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Dem assemblywoman: Fix public worker costs with universal health care – Asbury Park Press
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