TRENTON, New Jersey — New Jersey's largest teachers union announced Tuesday that it is no longer working with Chris Christie on a plan to overhaul public workers' pensions and health benefits, a partnership the governor had heralded as a sign he could work with political opponents.
New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer said in a statement that the union will not discuss new changes until the state makes the pension contributions it agreed to four years ago. Overhauling the pension system was one of the signature accomplishments of Christie's first term as governor, but he has since backed out of the state government's part of the deal.
"As the governor stated during his recent town hall meeting in New Hampshire: 'When you say you are going to do something, you do it.' I couldn't agree more, and that includes following the law he signed," Steinhauer said.
Christie, a Republican who is considering running for president next year, is crusading to scale back public worker pensions. He compares them to entitlements and says their risings costs are overwhelming taxpayers and preventing the state government from being able to afford other priorities. Democrats and union officials say tax increases on corporations and high-earners could help make up for decades of skimped and skipped state contributions, and they dispute the entitlement comparison.
Amid a revenue shortfall last year, Christie cut back on the state's contribution to the plans for fiscal 2014 and reduced them for 2015, too. In his budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1, he is proposing a $1.3 billon contribution, less than half of the $3.1 billion called for under a 2011 state law.
The NJEA and other unions are suing, saying the state is contractually obligated to make the full contributions. A court has agreed, telling Christie and lawmakers to find a way to contribute an additional $1.6 billion for this fiscal year. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Christie's appeal in the case on May 6.
The NJEA was the only major union to sign on to Christie's "roadmap" to pension and benefit changes when it was rolled out in February. A commission appointed by the governor is calling to reduce health benefits and use the savings to pay for the retirement benefits workers have already accrued. Current workers would also shift to 401(k)-style pensions instead of the defined-benefit plans they have now.
The union said at the time that it did not agree to specifics but rather just to participate in making a new plan.
Steinhauer said the talks were not going well. "It became obvious the commission was going to make recommendations to which we could not agree," he said. "Forcing employees to pay to repair their pensions with even deeper cuts in their health benefits; expanding the current statutory premium costs for employees; and undermining their collective bargaining rights."
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts called it "unfortunate" that the NJEA has backed out of the talks. "This unwillingness does not change the numbers," Roberts said in a statement Tuesday. "We will continue to work to solve this crisis with the commission."
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