TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — For the second straight year, New Jersey's powerful teachers union has topped the list of lobbyist spending by special interest groups.
The New Jersey Education Association spent $11.3 million in 2011 — more than any other single group ever, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Verizon, which came in second to the NJEA, spent $1.2 million and the AFL-CIO spent $794,000.
State election records show that $10.8 million of the NJEA total went toward advertisements in 2011, shattering the NJEA's record of $6.6 million in communication spending in 2010. Much of the advertising was anti-Gov. Chris Christie and his education proposals.
Christie said Wednesday he's not surprised by the spending, which he called a "political slush fund."
"I feel badly for teachers who pay their dues every year in order to have that kind of garbage put on the air," Christie said. "Teachers pay nearly $800 a year in union dues annually and have to pay 85 percent of that even if they opt out.
"There's a desperate need for change in leadership over there," Christie added. "They should be replaced, but apparently only a palace coup will do that."
The governor suggested the money would be better spent by using it to off-set some of his cuts to public worker health and pension benefits. The union represents about 195,000 working and retired school employees in New Jersey.
NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said the advertising was needed for the union to defend itself against the governor's attacks.
"We took that money and used it to educate the public about the governor's priorities, about his obvious preference for millionaires over public schools," Wollmer said. "We thought that was an import narrative to get out there."
The majority of the money was spent between March and June of last year leading up to the passage of the state budget, Wollmer said. The group used the money for billboards, television, radio and Internet ads, and even to hire a banner plane. The plane flew along the Jersey shore on Memorial Day weekend with a sign that read: "Millionaires for Christie," a reference to the governor's vetoes of attempts to raise income taxes on millionaires.
Wollmer said the money the group used for the advertising wasn't originally budgeted for, but was approved as an extraordinary expense by the union as the governor's public tongue-lashings intensified.
"Our members were outraged by the attacks and they insisted we do something," he said.
Spending by the union lobby eclipsed other special interest groups. Verizon, which came in second to the NJEA, spent $1.2 million and the AFL-CIO spent $794,000.