Whether it was hearings into response times, power restoration, the shape of schools and insurance claims, the after effects of Sandy were still hot topics 40 days after the superstorm left its unforgettable marks across the state.
Several issues were discussed by legislative committees with regards to how various things – utilities, education, insurance claims processing – could be improved now that superstorm Sandy has come and gone.
The state’s major utility companies had to face the music at the Senate Budget Committee hearing, where they were met with anything but cheers.
In particular, the head of the Board of Public Utilities, Robert Hanna, gave a failing grade to utilities’ communications during the storm in which millions of households were out of power for an extended period time. Some are still out.
Also, Sen. Kevin O ’Toole (R-40), of Cedar Grove, slammed Jersey Central Power and Light’s request for a $31 million rate hike, calling it “a real stick in the eye.”
He also pointed out that the head company of JCP&L made millions of dollars in net income. He said that some of that should go toward improving the utility’s infrastructure to provide better tree trimming, more infrastructure, and advanced meters, which may be costly but help in future major weather events.
Hanna said the rate hike request is merely a technicality and doesn’t mean the BPU will inevitably approve it.
The following day an Assembly committee likewise took its shots at utilities, handing out criticisms for poor communications and leaving powerless residents wondering when crews would get around to their neighborhoods. People understood it would take a while to get power back, but not being given timely information about when just exacerbated their problems, lawmakers said.
At an Assembly Financial Institutions Committee hearing, the head of the Department of Banking and Insurance testified the state has received nearly 1,200 claims out of the hundreds of thousands of insurance claims that have been presented by residents for property and auto damage they suffered.
However, there are inevitably some residents who’ll be disappointed with how relatively little is covered by flood insurance, which is a federal government program. Capped at $250,000, it falls well short of the property damage many along the shore may have suffered in pricey New Jersey. Those who have furnished basements are out of luck, since basic flood insurance does not cover it.
Committee members agreed with the heads of the Allstate Insurance and New Jersey Manufacturers companies that keeping insurance carriers in New Jersey and making sure they remain solvent is vital.
Bergen County mayors
A special meeting was held at the Meadowlands Racetrack where the mayors of Moonachie and Little Ferry described the extensive damage their communities suffered from Sandy’s storm surge. Many public buildings and cars were severely damaged, totaling millions of dollars, they said.
School year normalcy
At that same hearing Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said there aren’t any plans to waive the 180-day requirement for all schools, adding that the districts have done a good job of finding ways of making up the missed days. Some schools have lost as many as two weeks of classes, while 11 others have yet to open, with the students of the affected schools attending
classes elsewhere. For example, Moonachie school students are attending school in nearby Wood-Ridge.
Some 113 schools were severely damaged and nearly 30 students were “melted” off the enrollment records, Cerf said.
Against the backdrop of all the testimony regarding Sandy’s destruction, and ways to prevent as much damage as possible in future weather events, Gov. Chris Christie has requested, from FEMA, a 100 percent reimbursement for state and local government costs associated with debris removal and emergency measures.
“I have been highly supportive of the federal government’s immediate efforts in response to Hurricane Sandy, but it has become clear that the financial burden and economic hardship still confronted by our state and communities threatens the ability to continue debris removal operations at the existing cost-share ratio,” Christie wrote in the letter to FEMA Executive Director Craig Fugate.
“Any slowing of progress in continuing these essential operations in our communities puts in jeopardy a timely rehabilitation of our shore areas, relief from economic distress, and the removal of threats to the public health and safety. For these reasons, I am requesting that the federal government exercise its discretion to grant relief to New Jersey state and local governments with 100 percent federal reimbursement for categories A & B assistance for a period of no fewer than 90 days.”
Health benefits exchange
Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill creating health benefit exchanges, a major component of the Affordable Care Act.
The bill would enable those without insurance, and those looking for a better deal, to shop around for affordable health coverage online.
Despite the veto, Christie said he will meet the obligation of creating a system, either one that’s entirely created by the state, by the federal government, or by a mix of the two.
Numerous convenience store owners and gas station operators attended an Assembly Budget hearing to voice their opposition to the Christie administration’s plan to turn over the state Lottery sales and marketing team to an outside contractor for 15 years.
The owners claimed the sales and marketing would be fundamentally changed, helping big box owners. Even more troubling for them, they said opening the door to Internet Lottery sales would be a major blow.
The head of the Asian American Retailers Association said the mom and pop store owners stand to lose between 30 and 40 percent of Lottery sales and revenues. However, Lottery officials claim the move will actually help retailers since they will continue to depend on them to make the state Lottery system even more successful.
This week, it was the Assembly’s turn, after the upper chamber passed the bill previously. The Assembly took up the minimum wage bill. And just like prior sessions, the vote was solidly along party lines, with Democrats supporting the minimum wage hike bill and Republicans voting in opposition. There were two exceptions. Assemblyman Ron Dancer, (R-14), Plumsted, abstained and Assemblyman Matthew Milan, (D-1), of Cape May voted no.
Like Sweeney, Oliver supports going the constitutional amendment route if Christie vetoes the bill, which is likely.
“We do intend to put that bill up before the end of the year,” Oliver said, adding that both the Assembly and Senate want “to be armed” with a backup proposal if the governor vetoes the legislation recently voted on by both chambers.
In fact, the Assembly has scheduled a committee vote on the constitutional amendment portion of the minimum wage battle for next week.