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N.J. Teachers Union Spent $11.3 Million Lobbying Last Year

New Jersey’s largest teachers union spent a record $11.3 million on lobbying last year, mostly on television and radio advertising criticizing Governor Chris Christie.

The $10.9 million in communications spending by the New Jersey Education Association, up from $6.6 million in 2010, was the most by any lobbyist in New Jersey last year, according to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission. Total lobbying jumped 11 percent to a high of $73 million, a fourth-straight annual increase.

The 195,000-member NJEA led the pack. Its leaders have confronted Christie, a first-term Republican, over his spending cuts and proposals to change tenure rules, add charter schools and offer privately funded vouchers to students in low-income families.

“Lobbyists are depending more and more on mass-media communications in their effort to influence public policy,” Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of the election commission, said in a statement today.

Christie, who took office in January 2010, cut school aid and urged voters that April to reject budgets in districts where teachers refused to accept wage freezes. He later accused educators of using children like “drug mules” to carry union messages.

‘Slush Fund’

In an ABC News interview last year, Christie called New Jersey teachers “wonderful public servants” and their union’s leaders “political thugs.” Last month, he called for the firing of NJEA Executive Director Vincent Giordano over comments he made about schoolchildren from poor households.

Christie told reporters today in Trenton that the NJEA’s record spending “comes as no shock,” and that the union collects more than $100 million in dues each year that goes into a “political slush fund.” Giordano and union President Barbara Keshishian are “abject failures” as leaders, Christie said.

“I feel badly for teachers who pay their dues every year in order to have that kind of garbage put on the air,” said Christie, 49. “There’s a desperate need for change in leadership over there. They should be replaced, but apparently only a palace coup will do that.”

‘Fusillade of Untruths’

Steve Wollmer, a union spokesman, said members know how the union spends dues money and called Christie’s statements a “fusillade of untruths.” Teachers are forced to use costly advertising as Christie wields the power of his office to remain in the media spotlight for free, he said.

The union made an “extraordinary expenditure” in 2011, three-quarters of which was used to fund a March-June media campaign in the run-up to passage of Christie’s $29.7 billion budget, Wollmer said. Since taking office, the governor has eroded teacher morale as he cut school funding and forced educators to pay more for pensions, he said.

“Our members wanted us to speak out and we did,” Wollmer said in an interview. “We have to pay to get our message out by and large. This advertising was basically designed to level the playing field.”

The NJEA’s communications expenditures were 15 times as much as the next-highest lobbyist, the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, which spent $700,352. They were followed by the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity at $564,218; the New Jersey Association of Realtors with $336,436; and the state chapter of AARP, the group formerly called American Association of Retired Persons, with $322,381, according to the report.

Lobbying in other major states also set records, with spending of $345 million in Texas, $287 million in California, and $127 million in Florida, Brindle said. At the federal level, lobbying expenditures dropped 6.8 percent to $3.27 billion last year, the first decline in more than a decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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