Weekly Roundup: Week of Sept. 9

TRENTON – “Hello, I must be going.”

The Groucho Marx line summarizes erstwhile Assemblyman Albert Coutinho’s week.

It began and ended with first the lower and then the upper chambers of the Legislature putting the final touches on one of Coutinho’s pet projects: the Economic Opportunity Act.

But what should have been a career capstone became a professional epitaph when between those votes it was announced that Coutinho was under investigation for theft charges related to a non-profit foundation, he tendered his resignation from the Assembly, and then pleaded guilty in court.

That was about as swift a fall from grace as one can imagine.

On Monday, Coutinho – who previously had announced he wouldn’t seek re-election due to health reasons – was being praised on the floor of the Assembly.

By Thursday, his page was gone from the Legislature web site, and a successor – Eliana Pintor Marin – had been chose for LD 29.

Meanwhile, the EOA – as amended by Gov. Chris Christie’s veto – was approved.  Sen. Ray Lesniak lamented the lack of attention toward affordable housing, environmentalists warned of trouble for the Highlands – but the bill headed toward law.

Five business tax incentive programs were pruned to two.  Southern N.J. was primed to see a bigger slice of the opportunity pie.  New Jersey as a whole could be positioned to better compete against states such as the Carolinas that try to lure businesses south.

 

CVs

The lawmakers agreed with other conditional vetoes this week and mustered more bills toward law.

A bill to allow horse races at the shore was OK’d but only after a betting provision was left at the starting gate.

A bill to require firearms data reporting was approved but a provision that would have mandated public reporting by the state police on firearms trace data received from the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was removed after the governor said it violated federal law.

A bill to increase the amount of money that can be paid to someone falsely imprisoned was approved but a portion that would have allowed someone who falsely confesses to still be compensated was jettisoned.

Another bill that had been CV’d – the medical marijuana for minors bill – became law.  Despite some lingering concerns, parents were appreciative of changes that, for example, will allow edible forms of the medication for minors.

A related note on medical marijuana: The Economic Development Authority approved a loan request of $350,000 to permit a medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor to expand. That dispensary is the second of three approved so far statewide.

 

Charters

What could be a groundbreaking piece of legislation was heard in the Senate Education Committee this week.

Sen. Ray Lesniak’s bill would change the charter school statute. Right now a charter school must have open admissions. But his bill would allow establishments of charters specifically geared to accept students with addictions and to focus on helping and educating such students.

Other states have done this successfully, witnesses testified.

Specifically, this bill would pave the way for such a charter school by Prevention Links to open in 2014 serving initially 40 students in Elizabeth and Roselle, the panel was told.

 

AshBritt

The state Comptroller issued a report critical of the Sandy debris removal process, saying there was more than $300,000 in overcharges.

The report did not fault the removal company, AshBritt, whose initial hiring drew criticism in some quarters that alleged it was a no-bid pact.

The Comptroller did find fault with the oversight monitors. Much of the criticism concerned whether it was OK for the hauler to round upwards when reporting mileage and the vagueness of the language involved.

“We are pleased that as a result of this investigation, towns recovering from Sandy will recoup debris hauling fees that should not have been paid,” the report said.

And AshBritt responded that it voluntarily adjusted its invoices even though the Comptroller and the Federal Emergency Management Agency both found that AshBritt’s actions were reasonable.

 

State oversight

The Local Finance Board decided not to have state intervention for debt-plagued West Deptford.

The Board did mandate regular reporting to the Division of Local Government Services, but the town will be allowed to budget and spend without first getting approval.

The need to consider such an action was triggered by the fact the town – which last year reached a tax appeal settlement regarding the old Sunoco refinery – will have annual debt payment this year that exceeds operating appropriations by 25 percent.
On another matter that had been pending, the Board did find an ethics violation by the Hopatcong mayor but waived the $100 fine because she did not personally benefit.

The mayor had sent a letter to voters in 2011 urging them to support a referendum that would merge the zoning and planning boards.

The Board ruled it was a misuse of public resources, but in the grand scheme of things, a relatively harmless matter that it decided did not warrant the fine.

Weekly Roundup: Week of Sept. 9