NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey's senate leader urged the state police on Friday to drop charges against 25 protesters arrested during hearings on a plan to force public employees to pay more for their pension and health benefits.
Calling the issues "tough and emotional," Senate President Steve Sweeney said he is asking the state police to "drop all disorderly persons charges against the protesters."
The arrests, which included union activists from the Communications Workers of America, came Thursday before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved the changes for the state's 500,000 public employees.
New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie reached a deal with Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, both Democrats, requiring most public employees to contribute an additional 1 percent of their pay toward pensions, while firefighters and police would pay an additional 1.5 percent.
The plan "protects taxpayers, saves the public pension system for current and future retirees, and enhances fairness and choice in our health benefits system," the three leaders said in a joint statement this week.
As legislators began debating the plan, public workers rallied against it, holding signs that read "Support Working Families" and "Negotiate Don't Dictate," local media reported.
The changes require full legislative approval by the end of the month, when the current session ends.
Pension funding in U.S. cities and states has deteriorated in recent years as investment earnings dropped and government payments fell as revenue sagged in the wake of the severe 2007-2009 recession.
The issue has sparked heated debate from the halls of Congress, where lawmakers have suggested allowing states to go bankrupt to undo pension promises, to the Wisconsin capital of Madison, where thousands of demonstrators took to the streets over public employees' collective bargaining rights.
(Reporting by Edith Honan; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)