3 state worker pension funds sue Christie over contributions
New Jersey's three largest pension funds for public workers sued Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday over his decision to cut contributions earlier this year.
The lawsuit was filed in state chancery court on behalf of the Public Employees Retirement System, Police and Fire Retirement System and the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund. Unions representing public workers previously sued over the contributions cut after a surprise fiscal crunch this year.
"The unions were doing their thing on behalf of their membership," said Tom Bruno, chairman of PERS. "Our thing is a little different. Ours is a matter of trusteeship."
The funds also represent nonunion public workers. Bruno says the three members of the PERS board who represent Christie's administration abstained from the vote on whether to sue and the state attorney general's office recused itself from the issue.
One key accomplishment of Christie's first term as governor was an agreement to catch up funding for pension funds. For decades, governors had skimped on or skipped pension payments. As part of the agreement, retired public employees saw their cost-of-living increases suspended and current employees had to increase their retirement contributions.
In the spring, the state's tax receipts came in below expectations, causing a crunch both in last year's budget and the one for the fiscal year that started July 1. Christie filled the gaps mostly by cutting the state's pension contributions. He did not slash as far as governors had in the past, but he eliminated the portion of the payment intended to catch up on past deficiencies.
Democratic lawmakers and unions for public workers were outraged, saying the workers were making sacrifices but the governor was not holding up his end of the deal.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat who negotiated with Christie on the 2011 pension deal, repeated that argument in a statement Wednesday.
"The governor should live up to his promise to make his required contribution. The employees are paying their share, he should do the same," said Sweeney. The Democrat-controlled Legislature adopted a budget in June that included full pension funding, but Christie used a line-item veto to change it.
In the union lawsuit, a judge ruled that cuts for fiscal 2014 were acceptable but hasn't ruled yet on the cuts for the current fiscal year.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said in a statement Wednesday that the governor has contributed more to pensions than any other New Jersey governor and that the state needs further pension system changes so it can continue to fund schools, hospitals, drug treatment programs and other priorities.
"The courts have regularly upheld the authority of the Governor and Legislature to put in place budget plans that protect essential social services like our schools and hospitals," Roberts said.
The issue could cut both ways for Christie as the Republican governor considers running for president in 2016. Clashes with labor unions could bolster his standing in a potentially crowded Republican primary field that might include opponents like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who became a conservative darling after his own labor showdowns.
But it also could serve as a reminder of the downfall of the pension system changes he had touted as a major success, symbolic of the state's economic troubles, which opponents are likely to cite if he runs.
Christie is expected to outline more steps to shore up pension funds in the coming months.
AP writer Jill Colvin in Newark contributed to this article.
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