New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scored a big win for his agenda in June when he persuaded the state legislature to pass a public employee pension and benefits overhaul. The bill, which the governor’s office said would save New Jersey taxpayers $120 billion over 30 years, was the product of a yearlong negotiation between Christie and the Democratic leaders of the state senate and assembly, though it did not receive the backing of most Democrats in either chamber. Those that did support the bill are now paying a political price, with the state’s most powerful union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), withholding endorsements for any Democrat in the upcoming election who voted in favor of the pension reform, including the senate president and assembly speaker.
“NJEA members make these endorsement decisions, and they have made it clear that they will not endorse legislators who have impaired their right to collectively bargain and who have imposed thousands of dollars of additional costs on public employees,” NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said in a statement. “Our members refuse to give precious resources and their own time to campaign for legislators who hurt them and their families.”
That reference was to provisions of the pension and benefits reform bill that will increase state employee contributions to their pension and health benefit packages on a sliding scale based on salary, raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 and allow the state to begin offering catastrophic and reduced coverage health plans in exchange for lower premiums. Left off the NJEA’s endorsement list were more than 20 legislators from both houses, most of them Democrats, all of whom voted for the pension reform bill.
But in the case of State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the NJEA has done more than just decline to give him its seal of approval. It has spent $1 million of member dues to run advertisements against Sweeney in his district, alleging that his support for the bill had corrupt motives. The union tied Sweeney to longtime Democratic power broker George Norcross, who runs a health insurance brokerage with the state as one of its biggest clients. The NJEA alleged in the ad that Norcross’ firm would stand to benefit from the changes to employee benefits in the bill, essentially accusing Sweeney of selling his vote.