- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey lobbyists poured $70 million into influencing government officials in 2015, the second highest level recorded.

The wave of spending comes as the Democrat-led Legislature pushes a proposed ballot question to require quarterly public pension payments, the state’s fund for road and bridge work nears insolvency and as New Jersey’s largest health insurer rolls out a new tiered system.

“Some years are more active than others in the Statehouse,” said Election Law Enforcement Commission executive director Jeff Brindle. “Twenty-fifteen was one of them.”

Spending in 2015 was $11.1 million higher than in 2014 and approached the record level of $74 million in 2011 when the Democrat-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Christie enacted a pension overhaul.

New data released Thursday by the commission shows the biggest spenders included the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, as well as a business and labor coalition lobbying on road funding. NJEA far outspent all other lobbyists, at about $10.3 million, which was about a $10 million increase over 2014.

The union is a powerful supporter of the Democratic leadership’s plan to require quarterly pension payments. Christie has bashed the proposal, saying it unfairly prioritizes pension spending in the state budget over everything else.

Forward NJ, a coalition of business and labor groups that has pushed for solution on the transportation trust fund, spent nearly $1 million lobbying. Lawmakers say by June 30 the fund runs out of authority to borrow more money for capital projects and won’t bring in enough in revenues, including from the 14.5-cent gas tax, to remain solvent. Christie and lawmakers have so far failed to agree on a path forward. Democrats say the gas tax will have to go up.

Christie has called for “tax fairness,” or lowering other rates if the gas tax goes up. Legislation cutting retirement income taxes and the estate tax is winding through the Legislature. But it’s unclear whether that will produce a result on the transportation fund.

Other big spenders included insurers and hospital groups. That comes as Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield rolls out a new tiered health system, which has been opposed by the hospitals that are designated as tier 2 within the new plan.

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