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Clock ticking on pension amendment deadline for Democrats

July 30, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Democrats have returned from the presidential convention facing a deadline to pass a proposed constitutional amendment requiring the state make quarterly pension payments.

The proposal, which must be passed by the state Senate by Thursday in order to appear on this November’s ballot for New Jersey voters to consider, has stalled as legislators hash out how to pay for the state’s road and bridge work.

The proposed amendment, backed by the Democratic-led Legislature, amounts to a promise to public-sector unions to ensure the state would meet its public pension obligations after Republican Gov. Chris Christie reneged on a 2011 law requiring specified payments.

The issue carries enormous political weight because the amendment is backed by the state’s powerful unions, including the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and has been championed by Senate President Steve Sweeney, a possible candidate for governor in 2017.

Amid bloody mary-fueled breakfasts and the bustle of the convention floor, the issue percolated in the background at the hotel near the Philadelphia International Airport where New Jersey Democrats stayed during the convention. It was a top issue for NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer, who has lobbied lawmakers to pass the amendment, as he roamed the halls.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, an ally of Sweeney’s, says the plan is for the Senate to pass the transportation-funding legislation on Monday and the pension amendment at the chamber’s next meeting on Thursday. She acknowledged that failing to pass the amendment would be breaking a promise to public workers.

“I think we made a commitment to the unions on this,” she said. “It’s never good to break one’s promises.”

Republicans, including Christie, oppose the amendment and say requiring quarterly pension payments could require cuts to other programs and relies too heavily on the assumption that the state’s economy will continue to grow.

The issue has become connected to the transportation trust fund because the governor’s and Assembly-passed plan as well as a different Senate plan under consideration could open up a hole in the budget from $800 million to nearly $2 billion a year. Weinberg acknowledged a budget gap that large would make it tough to live up to the promises required under the proposed amendment.

The issue could factor into the contest to succeed Christie in 2017. The teacher’s union is an influential political player in New Jersey politics, last year funneling more than $3 million to political groups aimed at helping Democrats win office. Having their support is viewed as significant, especially in what is shaping up to be a crowded Democratic primary.

Even if the proposed amendment passes the Senate, it must still be approved by voters on the ballot this November.

The transportation trust fund ran out of authority to borrow cash for new projects on July 1. Christie halted projects through an executive order soon after that until a deal with lawmakers is reached. He and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto agreed on raising the gas tax by 23 cents and cutting the sales tax from 7 to 6 percent, but Prieto has since signed onto a new agreement with Sweeney to hike the gas tax by the same amount and instead cutting the estate tax and others.

Christie vowed to veto that plan, which got preliminary Senate approval on Friday.

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