- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

New Jersey officials expect to collect up to $200 million in additional revenue between now and June 30, a windfall that Gov. Chris Christie is proposing using for pensions for public workers.

The additional sum, if achieved, is still just one-eighth of the nearly $1.6 billion that a superior court judge ordered lawmakers to pay into the system after more than a dozen public sector unions filed suit to force the administration to make the full $2.2 billion payment that Christie had agreed to as part of a 2011.

“As he has repeatedly said, Governor Christie is committed to making as large a pension payment as possible while we pursue reforms to fix the pension system once and for all,” Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said in a statement announcing the new forecasts following April tax collections.

He said the administration will request that the Legislature approves the additional pension contribution.

The announcement comes a day before both sides are scheduled to appear in state Supreme Court for arguments in the pension case and a day before State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff is set to address the state assembly’s budget committee. A spokesman for the state Department of the Treasury referred questions to the governor’s office and said that Sidamon-Eristoff would address revenue projections in more depth when he testifies in front of the senate’s budget committee on May 19.

Assembly budget committee chairman Gary Schaer welcomed the news, but noted the governor’s proposed payment is still short of what the Superior Court called for.

“I’m hopeful the governor will continue to find money so that the legal obligations that he signed will be met,” he said, adding that he would defer to Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto on whether the Democrat-led Legislature would agree to the supplemental appropriation. Prieto called the development good news, but added: “Unfortunately we still have a long way to go. I urge the governor to continue working toward fiscal responsibility,” he said in a statement.

Senate budget committee chairman Paul Sarlo also welcomed the news and said he is not surprised by the development because this year’s revenue forecasts were conservative.

But he added: “We have a long way to go.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It’s not unusual for state revenue projections to change near the end of the fiscal year, which ends on the June 30.

At about this time last year, the state’s revenue announcement was dire. Officials said that revenue was $807 million below projections with just two months left in the fiscal year. Revelation about that year’s budget further led to reducing the revenue expectations for fiscal year 2015 by more than $1 billion.

The shortfall led to a scramble to balance the budget. Christie did most of it for both years by reducing the state’s contribution into public workers’ pension funds. He made the changes for fiscal 2015 over the objections of the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Unions for public workers objected and sued, saying the governor was contractually obligated to make the full planned payment because it was part of a 2011 pension system overhaul he’d signed into law.

A judge agreed with the unions and ordered Christie and lawmakers to put nearly $1.6 billion more into pensions for fiscal 2015. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday on Christie’s appeal of that ruling. Part of Christie’s counterargument is that he is developing a new plan to overhaul pensions and health insurance benefits again.

Under his new approach, savings from reduced health care costs would be used to pay off existing pension costs. Current workers would have new pension money go to 401(k)-style plans rather than the current defined-benefit pensions.

Christie, who is widely expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination for president, has been pushing for a new pension and health insurance overhaul for public workers. As part of his plan, savings from reduced health care costs would be used to pay off pension costs that have been earned already. Workers would then move from their current defined-benefit pensions to new 401(k)-style plans.

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Colvin reported from Washington, Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Michael Catalini contributed to this report from Trenton, New Jersey.

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