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N.J. Governor Christie creates public pension study commission

(Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Friday created a panel to recommend reforms to the state's pension and health benefits for retired public employees.

The panel of experts will be charged with "thinking big and being bold when it comes to developing recommendations for how New Jersey can create a sustainable retirement and health benefits system," Christie's office said in a statement.

The governor began calling for a new round of pension reform in February but has yet to lay out specific proposals. New Jersey's Democratic legislative leaders had worked with Christie, a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, to craft 2011 pension reforms.

Those changes mandated annual increases in the state's pension contribution to make up for years of skimping, with a target for reaching the full actuarially required contribution of $4.8 billion in fiscal 2018.

But in May, citing financial constraints, Christie slashed $904 million from the state's contribution to the pension system for fiscal 2014. Using his budget veto powers, he then pushed through a $1.57 billion reduction for this year's budget as well. The reductions are the subject of ongoing lawsuits filed by union members.

Christie will name pension study commission members in the coming days, spokesman Michael Drewniak said in an email. The commission is supposed to report its findings to Christie within 30 days.

The panel will examine a "soon-to-be-completed" review of potential reforms being conducted by the state's Treasury department. It will also look at reforms in other states and private sector retirement benefits.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney said on Friday that by slashing state pension contributions, Christie had broken a promise to fund the system.

"The problems will be fixed if he simply keeps his word and provides the appropriate funding," Sweeney said in a statement. "Until the governor decides to keep that commitment, there will be no further discussion between us on pensions."

(Reporting by Hilary Russ in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)

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