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Christie overstates pension accord to win votes, Sweeney says

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(Bloomberg) — Governor Chris Christie, who has vilified leaders of New Jersey’s biggest teachers’ union as “political thugs,” is overstating their new alliance on pensions to boost his national standing, said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

No other public labor groups are going along with what Christie called an “unprecedented accord” with the New Jersey Education Association during his budget speech last month. Fourteen unions — including the teachers’ — are preparing a lawsuit over Christie’s third straight year of reduced payments to a pension system with an $83 billion unfunded liability.

The backlash endangers Christie’s image as a bipartisan leader as he considers a 2016 presidential run. A ruling in the unions’ favor also may force him to spend money the state doesn’t have — as much as $1.8 billion, the amount he’s holding back from what had been a planned $3.1 billion contribution for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

“I sat back there and listened to the speech and I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t true,’” Sweeney, the highest-ranking Democrat in the state legislature, said in an interview on Wednesday in his office. “Announcing this road map and basically burning the teachers publicly creates an atmosphere that makes it harder.”

Christie, during his Feb. 24 budget address, said that the teachers’ union had agreed to consider freezing its portion of the plan and replacing it with one run by a trust. “It is expected,” he said, that all the unions would cooperate on health-care savings.

‘Legal obligation’

“Imagine: After years of disagreement and, at times, acrimony, we have come together on a negotiated and signed road map to fix the largest hurdle to New Jersey’s long-term fiscal stability,” Christie said. “While this road map is with the NJEA today, I hope other unions will follow suit tomorrow.”

Sweeney, 55, sponsored Christie’s first-term pension and benefit changes that helped make the governor a national Republican figure and cost the Democrat some union support. The lawmaker, a career ironworker from West Deptford, said he won’t go along with more union sacrifices unless the fiscal 2016 budget includes a full pension contribution. Neither will the state’s biggest public workers union.

“It’s a legal obligation,” said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey director of the Communications Workers of America, representing more than 40,000 state employees.

Wendell Steinhauer, president of the teachers union, said he sat down with a Christie-appointed commission and agreed to further discussion about the pension issue. The governor exaggerated their alliance in his budget speech, Steinhauer said, calling Christie’s remarks “unfortunate.”

‘No specifics’

“There’s no specifics in there,” Steinhauer said in an interview. “Now we have to waste a lot of time clarifying things.”

Christie is among a wave of Republican governors squabbling with public workers over health care and retirement payments that are absorbing increasing amounts of state budgets.

In Illinois, Governor Bruce Rauner on Feb. 4 called for local right-to-work laws to eliminate compulsory union membership in organized workplaces. Some Wisconsin labor groups have lost more than half their rolls under legislation signed in 2011 by Governor Scott Walker, a potential challenger for the 2016 presidential nomination.

In New Jersey, Christie’s strategy meshes with his higher ambitions, according to Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University history and public affairs professor.

“He’s playing to moderate Republicans versus conservative Republicans — that’s now his audience,” Zelizer said. “It’s an effort to build an image that goes beyond being another Scott Walker or another conservative.”

Build appeal

Even if Christie fails to win more pension and benefit changes, he’ll still build appeal among Republicans, Sweeney said.

“Nationally, what would be better for him, politically, than to say, ’Look. I tried. They’re on their own.’” Sweeney said.

During his first term, Christie singled out the 195,000- member New Jersey Education Association among a public workforce united against pension cuts and his veto of a millionaires tax.

In 2011, as the NJEA was overseeing an anti-Christie ad campaign, the governor told ABC News that the union’s leaders were “political thugs.” Another time, he called them “abject failures.”

“I don’t think teachers are the problem,” he told a town hall meeting in Branchburg in April 2013. “I think unions are the problem.”

Benefits crisis

Christie acknowledged that the benefits crisis was worsened by governors, including himself, who skipped or underfunded pension payments, and he signed legislation to make seven annual extra contributions to bring the fund to actuarial minimums.

Last year, Christie defied his own law, reducing a planned $3.85 billion contribution to $1.37 billion for two fiscal years, triggering a lawsuit from the Communications Workers, and other unions representing state troopers.

On Feb. 23 a Superior Court judge ruled that he wasn’t entitled to cut the 2015 contribution. During his budget address in Trenton the next day, he announced a cut to the 2016 payment, as he hailed an alliance with the teachers, taking other labor groups by surprise.

Christopher Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, said the work of a Christie-appointed pension commission that recommended changes “was kept secret from us.” Rosenstein, from the CWA, said solutions discussed during “back-room meetings” were no substitute for full payments.

“They should be ashamed,” Edwin Donnelly, president of the 6,800-member New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, said of the NJEA. “It’s a very uneasy feeling to be on the outside when you’re looking in and not being included in those conversations.”

Steinhauer said critics were missing the point.

“The main goal is to make sure our members have a solvent pension system for decades to come Steinhauer said by telephone on Feb. 25.