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Sunday, October 23, 2016

By John Reitmeyer, The Record

TRENTON, N.J — Embedded Tuesday in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s somber talk about pensions — a mind-numbing topic — was a sharp pivot reflective of a dramatically changed political moment.

Christie has regaled audiences across the country with stories of how he teamed up with Democrats and pulled New Jersey’s debt-plagued pension system back from the brink of insolvency. His victory lap after a 2011 bill-signing on pension reforms took him to California for a speech before Nancy Reagan and to the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

He also boasted during the nationally televised keynote speech at the Republican National Convention in Florida of how the reforms would save taxpayers $132 billion over the next 30 years.

And with his eyes seemingly fixed on a run for president in 2016, Christie again held up pension reform shortly after notching his landslide re-election victory last November.

“Maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now to see how it’s done,” Christie said in his victory speech in Asbury Park.

But on Tuesday, in his latest budget address in Trenton, Christie, without directly acknowledging a reversal, said the pension system he once claimed to have fixed is again a major problem, part of what’s now grown into a “looming crisis.” He then compared New Jersey — held up just a few months ago as a model for Washington to follow — to recently bankrupt Detroit.

New Jersey’s public employee pension system is now underfunded by $52 billion, he said, nearly back to the $53.9 billion measured before passage of the 2011 reform bill, which forced public workers to pay more for their benefits and ended most cost-of-living increases.

“The reality is that the aggressive reforms we enacted together have only bought us time,” Christie said.

But for Christie, pivoting back to the pension system and the broader burden of public employee benefits also puts him back on a much-needed offensive. After spending the last few weeks fending off questions raised after The Record published documents indicating his own staff was involved in the September lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, Christie was back out on the town-hall circuit on Wednesday, pressing for new, but undefined, pension system changes in Morris County.

“Detroit is giving us a preview of what could happen to us,” Christie warned in Long Hill.

To the Democrats who joined Christie on those 2011 reforms in the face of fierce resistance from the state’s powerful public employee unions, the governor’s need for a new distraction is naked.

Christie has returned to the pension issue because “he’s looking to pick a fight with somebody,” Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney, told The Record on Thursday.

Sweeney, a primary sponsor of the 2011 reform bill, said all the state needs to do is stay the course, since part of the broader reform effort also called for New Jersey to again make a full pension payment, something that’s being phased in over the next several years.

“Nothing has changed,” Sweeney said. “If we stay the course, we’re fine.”

That position is nearly identical to comments last year by a spokesman for Christie’s Department of Treasury after the total unfunded obligation in New Jersey’s pension system hit $47.2 billion.