Union-Funded Ads About Atlantic City, but Issue Is Pensions

Voters in New Jersey’s two competitive legislative races have been bombarded with television ads about the plight of Atlantic City casinos, but the group bankrolling the spots says they’re actually sending a message that the state should properly fund pensions.

The political arm of the state’s largest teacher’s union, the New Jersey Education Association, has contributed nearly $3 million to a super PAC whose mission is electing Democrats.

General Majority PAC, has spent about $2 million ahead of the Nov. 3 election, with money going toward ads in southern New Jersey’s 1st and 2nd districts to portray the Democrats as a firewall against politicians trying to bring casinos to northern New Jersey. The ads, airing in the Atlantic City area, don’t mention it is actually Democrats proposing new casinos, nor do they mention pensions.

But a union official says the organization is helping candidates who oppose Gov. Chris Christie’s decision not to fund the state’s pension according to a 2011 law worked out with Democrats and backed by unions at the time.

“It sends a very loud signal. Our members have not missed a payment. Their contributions have gone up every year since 2011,” said NJEA executive director Edward Richardson. “Ultimately, we would like to have people in office who will ensure the state meets its responsibility.”

Unions, NJEA included, agreed to cuts in cost of living increases, and in return Christie agreed to make billions in additional payments to the pension, which faces a roughly $40 billion unfunded liability. After revenues dried up in recent years, Christie this year contributed about one-third of the $3 billion that had been agreed to and then won a state Supreme Court ruling that the government was not bound to make the larger payment.

Christie is seeking the Republican nomination for president and has criticized unions on the campaign trail. In August a CNN interviewer noted Christie’s past statements that he confronts bullies by punching them in the face, asking “who deserves a punch in the face” on the national level. Without hesitation, Christie said teachers unions, saying they care more about greater membership than educating kids.

Union officials bitterly opposed Christie over pensions, and they appear to be taking their anger out on Assembly Republicans. The Assembly race will be at the top of this year’s ballot on Election Day, the first time since 1999.

Election Law Enforcement Commission executive director Jeff Brindle said he believes General Majority PAC’s spending will account for the biggest block of so-called independent expenditures this cycle.

State Democrats point out they do not and cannot coordinate with the super PAC even though the group is favorable to them. So far, no equivalent political action committee is helping Republicans, which have raised $3.8 million to the Democrats’ $8.5 million, not including money given to the super PAC.

The GOP says what the union is asking for equates to higher taxes since making the full pension payment would require either more revenue or deeper cuts elsewhere in the budget.

“What they’re doing is not illegitimate,” said Minority Leader Jon Bramnick. “I understand how the process works. But the public has to know there’s an alternative to higher taxes.”

At stake on Election Day are 80 Assembly seats across 40 districts, but experts say perhaps only three will be competitive. Those include the 1st and 2nd districts where the parties split control of each district’s two seats.

In the 1st District, Democratic incumbent Bob Andrzejczak and running mate Bruce Land are taking on Republican incumbent Sam Fiocchi and Jim Sauro. In the Atlantic City-based 2nd District, Democratic incumbent Vince Mazzeo and Colin Bell are competing against Republican incumbent Chris Brown and Will Pauls.