- Associated Press - Sunday, November 8, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The new and bigger Democratic majority in New Jersey, expanded with financial help from the state’s largest teachers union, must pay more toward the public pension in 2016 than Gov. Chris Christie has this year, the labor group says.

The New Jersey Education Association’s message comes after Assembly Democrats picked up at least three seats in last week’s general election. It comes after a political group connected with the union contributed nearly $4 million to a super PAC that ran television ads in southern New Jersey highlighting the plight of Atlantic City casinos and the economy, not the pension issue.

The union wants Christie and lawmakers to follow a 2011 law that called for higher state payments into the pension annually. In return, union members agreed to pay more into the system and to absorb other costs. Last fiscal year the payment would have been nearly $3 billion but Christie fought - and won - a legal battle to make a lower payment of $1.3 billion.

“Follow the state’s commitment to achieve full funding and to the honor the commitment made by every public employee who’s been making their contribution in every paycheck,” said NJEA executive director Ed Richardson.

Democratic leaders say they hear the message loud and clear, and one Republicans say demonstrates the influence of special interests in the election. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Majority Leader Louis Greenwald say making the pension payment is a top priority for lawmakers. In the past, Democrats have proposed financing the larger pension payment through tax increases on income over $1 million, but Christie has vetoed those efforts.

What’s different about this time around, Democrats say, is the election changed the political playing field by making it harder for Republicans to stand by Christie.

“There is a significant change. The landscape has changed dramatically,” Greenwald said. “If you are a Republican left standing after last Tuesday that hung on by 100, 200 votes you have to make a decision. Are you gonna stand and blindly follow him?”

The union says the election sent a message to Republicans that they should support making a larger pension payment.

“There frankly should be some Republican support that essentially causes the state to live up to its responsibility,” Richardson said.

The union’s pension message took a back seat during the campaign even though it is the labor group’s biggest issue.

It’s a common tactic in political advertising, experts say.

“The public is getting a sense that the group is concerned about ‘A,’ when that’s not what its concern is at all. Its concern is ‘B,’” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Democracy 21 organization.

Republicans have called for Democratic leaders and union officials to work toward some of the recommendations called for by a panel appointed by Christie. Those include moving toward a 401(k)-style plan among other changes.

After the election, Republicans criticized the expenditures but did not put forward their own plan on pensions.

“This is a special interest election,” Republican Assemblyman Scott Rumana said. “Make no bones about it, it’s the money that drove the election and now Democrats have to answer to folks that funded their campaign.”

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