- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey voters are one step closer to considering whether the state’s constitution should be change to mandate how public pension contributions are made.

A proposed amendment pushed by the Democrat-led Legislature and backed by unions advanced in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Monday, despite opposition from business groups and Republicans, including Gov. Chris Christie.

The proposal has rekindled a long-time political fight between Christie and Democrats and labor that stretches back to 2011 reform legislation that ultimately fell apart.

“This is a pragmatic solution to a two-fold problem - fulfilling our commitment to public employees and re-establishing financial stability and long-term solvency for our state,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said in a statement.

Republicans called on Democrats to instead enact additional reforms to the pension system, which covers state employees, teachers and other public workers.

“Without meaningful structural changes that make pensions affordable, our pension obligations will grow and the state’s credit rating will continue to fall,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said.

If approved by voters, the measure would require the state to make the public pension payment quarterly. The state currently makes a payment once per year, according to the governor’s budget.

The Democrat-led Legislature passed the same measure in the previous session. Voters would decide the question in November if both chambers approve the legislation again this year.

The measure moves next to the full Assembly. The Senate has not acted on it yet during the current session.

Christie argues it puts pensions ahead of every other priority in the state’s nearly $34 billion budget.

The tensions over retirement funding stretch back to a 2011 reform in which workers agreed to give up cost-of-living payments in exchange for the state paying more into the pension, which is estimated to have about $80 billion in liabilities, each year.

But when the state’s revenues came in lower than expected Christie contributed less than called for in the 2011 deal, though the workers did not regain their adjustment payments. The unions sued Christie, and the state Supreme Court delivered him a victory in 2015, ruling that they could not force the governor to make a pension payment because it required appropriating state funds, which go through the budget process.

After that ruling, legislative Democrats vowed to make the payment, which led them to propose the constitutional amendment.

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