- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Republican Gov. Chris Christie asked lawmakers to again help overhaul New Jersey’s imperiled pension system Tuesday in a budget address a week after returning full time to a state where his popularity has cratered and the Democrats in charge of the Legislature are looking beyond him.

Christie, back from his failed GOP presidential bid, unveiled a $34.8 billion spending plan, including almost $2 billion for the pension, which is far below the roughly $3.8 billion he and lawmakers agreed to in 2011.

It’s Christie’s largest budget yet and about $1 billion more than the current year’s, buoyed by growing revenue collections. The pension contribution is the largest in state history, a fact undisputed by Democrats.

Like last year’s budget, Christie is warning of the dire situation the pension, which had been underfunded by previous Democratic and Republican administrations, faces. He’s calling on lawmakers to slash retirees’ health benefits by $250 million.

Unlike last year, Christie’s job approval rating has sunk to an all-time low of 33 percent, according to a Rutgers Eagleton poll.

Christie also kicked off town hall meetings in the state last year in support of his pension overhaul plan, which failed to persuade Democrats to accept his changes. He spent most of the year outside the state, much of it campaigning for president in a crowded GOP field.

Since then, Democrats have moved forward a plan to require quarterly pension payments, which they say they want to get on the ballot by November for voters to weigh in. Their plan accepts Christie’s funding formula through the end of his term but then would ramp up after he leaves. He’s in office through 2017. He slammed the idea, saying it would prioritize public pensioners over other residents.

Christie’s push also comes as a crowded Democratic field weighs whether to run for governor next year, with the state’s labor unions making up an influential part of the party’s support network. Public unions, including the New Jersey Education Association, have rejected Christie’s proposals.

Christie acknowledged the budding gubernatorial election in his speech to legislators at the statehouse, arguing that lawmakers should not waste the remaining 630 days of his term.

“Are we going to waste those days on partisanship and politics? Or will you work with me to use those 630 days to help bring relief to our overburdened taxpayers?” he asked.

Democrats are not ruling out working together to instead pursue their amendment, but neither are they embracing the reforms he’s put forward.

“He says he wants to work together,” Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said. “We’ve been here all along to work together.”

There is evidence, though, Democrats are not going to challenge Christie’s proposed pension payment in the new budget.

“It’s a big part of the budget that’s off the table now - that we all agree with,” Democratic state Sen. Paul Sarlo said.

Christie also called for fixing the state’s road and bridge fund, which could run out of money for repairs by this summer, but said it must be done in a way that’s fair to taxpayers. He has said he would not consider tax increases without lowering rates elsewhere.

Christie said it’s a politically driven mischaracterization to imply the trust fund is in crisis and said the administration is looking for ways to control costs and waiting for “realistic proposals from lawmakers.” Christie’s former transportation commissioner, Jamie Fox, told lawmakers last April the fund was in or soon would be in crisis.

Prieto questioned some of Christie’s math and said the trust fund is in the worst shape it’s ever been in. He and Democratic state Senate President Steve Sweeney also said they were willing to consider certain tax cuts as part of discussions over transportation funding.

Christie has a strong position compared to the Democrat-led Legislature because the governor has a line item veto and can strip out changes lawmakers might make to his budget.

Christie said the experience of the failed presidential campaign has made him a better governor and person. He thanked residents for “allowing me the great privilege of running” for president.

The budget also includes a nearly $94 million increase in school aid and an additional $29 million in local tax relief. It projects a nearly $800 million surplus.

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