Federal judge tosses NJ unions' pensions suit

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday threw out a lawsuit brought by New Jersey teachers, police officers, firefighters and public workers challenging a law that requires them to pay more for their pensions and health benefits.

U.S. District Court Judge Anne Thompson dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds.

Policemen's Benevolent Association President Anthony Wieners said he's disappointed the judge didn't consider the merits of the unions' claims. He said an appeal will be filed.

"Our resolve to continue this fight has never been stronger," he said.

The governor's office had no immediate comment.

The unions claim the state has no right to unilaterally reduce pensions, which they say are part of a worker's negotiated deferred compensation package. The law enacted last year is a centerpiece of Gov. Chris Christie's attempts to control government spending.

The sweeping changes to government workers' pensions and health benefits require them to contribute more to both. The law was designed to help shore up the seriously underfunded pension and health benefits systems, which faced the prospect of insolvency unless changes were made.

The law raised the retirement age to 65 for newly hired workers, and eliminated cost-of-living increases for retirees already collecting pensions. It increased the amount workers were required to pay into their retirement funds, and required the state to begin paying its share into the retirement accounts.

Under the law, everyone in the state pension plan was assessed an additional 1 percent of salary immediately; some workers will see an additional increase phased in. For example, teachers' contributions went from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent of salary now and will rise an additional 1 percent over seven years. Police and firefighters' contributions increased to 10 percent, from 8.5 percent, immediately. Judges rise from 3 percent to 12 percent over seven years.

Judges have filed a separate lawsuit challenging their pension changes.

Employees are also required to pay more for health insurance, which had been free, then was raised to 1.5 percent of salary, before the most recent changes.

Under the plan Christie signed into law last summer, after divisive debate in the Legislature, employees will pay a portion of their health care premiums based on income. Employees who earn $60,000 and paid $900 (1.5 percent of salary) toward health insurance will see their yearly costs rise to $2,056 (3.4 percent of salary) for single coverage or $3,230 (5.4 percent of salary) for a family plan, after a four-year phase-in.

The judge ruled that the federal court did not have jurisdiction because the 11th Amendment of the Constitution bars federal lawsuits against the state if the remedy for any violation found would be payment from the state.

Wieners said a decision will be made whether to file an appeal in federal court or to file a new lawsuit in state court.

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