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Is Christie's relationship with unions a presidential hopeful dance?

New Jersey's public-sector unions don't particularly trust Gov. Christie: He has twice underfunded their pension system since he signed a law in 2011 obligating the state to contribute more, and last month he again proposed a payment that falls short of what's required by statute.

New Jersey's public-sector unions don't particularly trust Gov. Christie: He has twice underfunded their pension system since he signed a law in 2011 obligating the state to contribute more, and last month he again proposed a payment that falls short of what's required by statute.

So to Statehouse observers, the participation of the state's largest teachers' union in private talks with a commission the governor had tasked with proposing changes to public employee benefits marked a significant development.

Yet that revelation, included in Christie's annual budget address to the Legislature, was undercut by the governor's heralding of an "unprecedented accord" with the union and other rhetoric that seemed to overstate his case.

If Christie's goal was to bring unions together to overhaul the pension system, his speech has had the opposite effect: embarrassing the teachers' union, which quickly disputed the governor's characterization of their collaboration, and angering other unions.

Some unions were resentful of the New Jersey Education Association's decision to engage in talks without their knowledge, deepening the backlash against Christie's proposal, people familiar with the matter said.

"They decided to have secret meetings and curiously believe promises from the same administration that continually lies," said Christopher Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey.

"Even their own members didn't know their futures were possibly being given away and put in jeopardy," he said. "As a union leader, I see that as not looking out for your members' best interests."

Whatever their disagreements, 14 unions, including the NJEA, said last week they would sue Christie to compel a full pension payment next fiscal year.

Christie said New Jersey's budget was constrained by the growing costs of retiree benefits.

But the intended audience for Christie's speech last month wasn't New Jersey taxpayers, said Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University.

"Everything Christie does is through the lens of presidential politics," he said. "The more unions yell at him, that's better for him in Iowa and New Hampshire. The lens of getting something done [in New Jersey] I think is over for Gov. Christie."

At home, however, the NJEA's willingness to meet with Christie's commission underscores the dire condition of the state's $80 billion pension system.

Its overall unfunded liability is between $37 billion and $83 billion, depending on the accounting method used to calculate it.

The state's health benefits system for public employees has an unfunded liability of $53 billion, according to the commission.

The teachers' union, in particular, is worried. The Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund, which covers about 250,000 active and retired members, will run out of money by 2027, according to the commission's September report. "The legal and financial uncertainties of this nightmare scenario are considerable," the report said.

"That got my attention," said Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association.

"It's now within 12 years of going default," he said. "That's a major concern to me. Within six, that's when you start selling off assets and go into a downward spiral. We need to take action now."

The average annual benefit of new retirees in the Teachers Pension and Annuity Fund in 2013 was $47,827, according to the commission.

The three-page "road map" Steinhauer signed with commission members proposes freezing the fund's existing plan and replacing it with a new, presumably leaner, one, both of which would be transferred to a trust created by the union.

Local governments would contribute to the new plan, and the state would pay down its unfunded liability over roughly 40 years by slashing health-care costs. State funding would be mandated by a constitutional amendment.

Unlike most other funds in New Jersey's pension system, the teachers' fund now receives contributions from only the state, not local government. Employees also contribute to the fund.

Because the state for years has skimped on payments or skipped them altogether, the teachers' fund is in a worse position than others.

That helps explain other unions' resistance to Christie's proposal.

The Police and Firemen's Retirement System, for example, is funded mostly by local governments, which have proved more reliable than the state. The system's funded ratio - the ratio of its assets to the present value of the plan's current obligations - is 77 percent, which is considered financially healthy.

By contrast, the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund's funded ratio is 57 percent.

"To be brutally honest, as crass as it sounds, our pension is really actuarially doing well," said Patrick Colligan, president of the state Police Benevolent Association.

If he were head of the NJEA, he said, "I'd be at the table, begging for help. I'm glad they're looking at it. I just wish they'd done it with a little bit more" transparency, Colligan said.

He and other unions oppose Christie's proposal, saying workers have sacrificed plenty while the governor has cut state payments to the pension system.

Laws enacted in 2010 and 2011 - over considerable union resistance - required public workers to contribute more toward their pensions, trimmed health benefits, raised the retirement age, and suspended cost-of-living adjustments.

In return, the state was required to phase in bigger payments to the pension system. Facing revenue shortfalls last year, Christie slashed the pension payments for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

Unions sued, and a state judge last month ordered Christie to work with the Legislature to add $1.6 billion to the pension system during the fiscal year that ends June 30. Christie's office has said he would appeal.

The governor has proposed making a $1.3 billion payment for fiscal year 2016, about $1.7 billion less than actuaries say the 2011 law requires.

"You have to put the money in before anybody's going to talk to you," said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America. "I think that's a very fair, reasonable position for us to take."

Members of Rosenstein's union are split among a number of the state's pension funds.

The challenge for Democrats, who control the Legislature, is to figure out how to fully fund the pension this year and next with a tight budget.