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N.J. Teachers Mobilize To Protest Governor's Budget

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As New Jersey lawmakers hustle to pass a balanced budget before the July 1 deadline set in the state constitution, they find themselves caught between a coalition of 16 anti-tax groups and angry public employees, of whom the noisiest appear to be teachers.

Last week, both camps were waging intense lobbying campaigns in support of and against Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's proposed $15.4 billion budget.

Although many districts would lose state funding, the education budget is essentially level-funded for the 1994-95 school year.

What the teachers are so angry about is the Governor's intention to stop subsidizing public-employee pensions as a way to make good on her tax-cut promises.

At one point last week, Mrs. Whitman unveiled a compromise proposal that would require a 5 percent worker contribution and phase out the pension subsidy in two years.

But the New Jersey Education Association said the newest proposal would actually take more money out of teachers' pockets than Mrs. Whitman's original plan.

"They were hoping to have a P.R. coup and a financial coup at the same time,'' said Lynn Maher, a spokeswoman for the union.

The lobbying efforts followed what police called one of the largest rallies ever held in the state capital. Rain did not deter some 30,000 teachers and their supporters, who converged outside the State House in Trenton to protest the budget.

Electoral Threats

"This budget cuts your pay, and it must not stand,'' Dennis Testa, the president of the N.J.E.A., told the crowd.

"It threatens our pensions, and it must not stand; it menaces our health benefits, and it must not stand; it cuts school aid, and it must not stand,'' he chanted.

Robert A. Bonazzi, the executive director of the teachers' union, threatened electoral consequences for lawmakers who voted in favor of eliminating the pension subsidy.

"Last fall, Christine Todd Whitman won the governor's race by about 26,000 votes--one percent of the almost 2.5 million ballots cast,'' Mr. Bonazzi said. "As for her winning margin, we have more than 10 times 26,000 public employees throughout this state right now saying 'no' to her plans.''

Radio talk shows have been abuzz with callers denouncing the teachers as a greedy lot.

"This is pure unadulterated pork,'' said John Sheridan, a board member of Hands Across New Jersey, an anti-tax group.

Observers note that the union's reaction has a familiar ring. Former Gov. James Florio, a Democrat, ran afoul of the union when he proposed transferring the cost of pensions to school districts.

The N.J.E.A. did not endorse a gubernatorial candidate in 1993, when Mrs. Whitman defeated Mr. Florio. Do officials think they may have shot themselves in the foot?

"Every single time a leader of the N.J.E.A. leaves the building, they are hit with that question,'' Ms. Maher said. "The answer is: 'We don't look back.'''

"The problem is not the N.J.E.A.,'' she said. "The problem is the Governor.'''

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