Morning News Digest: December 9, 2009

In Bergen, potential Republican freeholder candidates emerge early

After snapping a six year dry spell by winning two freeholder seats last month, Bergen County Republicans are having no trouble recruiting candidates for freeholder next year, when they’ll have an opportunity to take control of the freeholder board. Bergen County Republican Chairman Bob Yudin said that six people have expressed interest to him about running for the three seats that are up next November, all of which are currently held by Democrats. “I’m not used to it. It’s a pleasure. I think it’s great,” said Yudin. “It shows and confirms the resurrection of our party. And I think the more people we have and the more competition we have.” Yudin would not name the potential candidates, but multiple Bergen County Republicans pointed to several, including two candidates who have already announced intentions to run. Former candidate Chris Calabrese is one of them. “I’m actually making the calls right now,” he said. Calabrese was the Republicans’ top vote getter in 2008, losing to the Democratic incumbents by a relatively narrow margin. He sought the party’s support for a freeholder run this year, but faced blowback over a flyer that offended some past Republican freeholder candidates by comparing his own vote totals to theirs. He ultimately lost to Mahwah Councilman Rob Hermansen and Paramus activist John Driscoll, who went on to unseat two Democratic incumbents in November and will be sworn in next month. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Van Drew downplays possibility of '10 House run

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis) is not likely to run for Congress next year against U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-Vineland), but he remains uncommitted one way or the other. “I’m not trying to be coy. The bottom line is this: I’m very focused on the state issues right now. They are huge. They’re historic. They’re beyond anything the state of New Jersey has ever seen,” said Van Drew in a phone interview last week. Van Drew has been recruited by Democratic leaders about a prospective congressional run before, particularly for the 2008 election. “I never say never… but I’d say the likelihood is not there,” he said. Van Drew’s political stock stayed high last month after his two running mates, Assemblymen Matt Milam (D-Vineland) and Nelson Albano (D-Vineland) won reelection despite Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie’s victory statewide. Although not on the ballot, Van Drew campaign frequently with the assemblymen. And the two assemblymen cut deeply into Christie’s 5,500 margin of victory over Gov. Jon Corzine in Van Drew’s native Cape May County, with Albano and Milam losing there by about 1,000 and 2,000 votes, respectively (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

NJ Senator proposes gas tax hike to pay for transportation – if Christie supports it

State Sen. Ray Lesniak today said he will push for a hike in New Jersey’s relatively low gas tax — calling it the best way to pay for transportation projects — and he is looking for support from the incoming governor. The Union County Democrat said he will file a bill for the legislative session in January to "gradually and incrementally" raise the tax, perhaps by a penny a year. But he will only move it forward through the legislative process — asking other lawmakers to vote for it — if Gov.-elect Christie changes his stance against raising the tax. "At some point in time, sooner rather than later, we will have to increase the gas tax to fund our transportation needs," Lesniak said. He made his comments at a New Jersey Business and Industry Association forum in Iselin and in a separate interview. "I don’t want to have a bridge fall down before we get this going." A Christie spokeswoman reiterated today that he will not support a gas tax increase. "Gov.-elect Christie’s position still stands that this is not the way to deal with New Jersey’s revenue ills," spokeswoman Maria Comella said in an e-mail. "He will not support raising the gas tax and passing the state’s financial burden on to struggling New Jersey families already paying the highest taxes in the country." But Lesniak said he thinks the next governor will come around. (Fleisher, Star Ledger)

NJ Gov.- elect Chris Christie calls for audit of school boards

Gov.-elect Chris Christie says he will call for an audit of all school boards when he becomes governor and wants to move school board elections to November. During New Jersey 101.5's "Ask the Governor" program on Tuesday, Christie also suggested tying education funding to a reduction of "middle management" in school districts as he looks to cut property taxes and close an $8 billion budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. Nearly half of all property taxes, which are the highest in the nation at an average of $7,000 a home, go toward education funding. (AP)

Incoming Christie administration looks to delay, lower tax employer hike

The incoming Christie administration is trying to figure out a way to put off what business groups call a major tax hike on employers — or, at least, soften the blow. In July, businesses will see an increase in the amount they contribute to the unemployment insurance trust fund, from which the state pays jobless benefits. The fund is $790 million in the red, after legislative raids pushed it to the brink and the recession put it over the edge. By state law, the amount employers pay is based on a formula that takes into account the how much money is left in the fund. An automatic increase triggered this year already raised taxes for employers, but only slightly. Now, employers are looking at the maximum increase. For some employers, this could mean an increase in taxes of $200 per employee per year, while others could see a $700 increase per employee. (Fleisher, Star Ledger)

NJ Attorney General issues subpoena for Essex election employee records in voter fraud probe

The state Attorney General’s Office issued subpoenas for the employee records of 20 or more Essex County election workers just days after last week’s indictments in an ongoing voter fraud investigation, an official said today. The subpoenas — for records documenting vacation, sick time and the like — were delivered Friday to the county’s human resources department, Essex County counsel James R. Paganelli said. The county counsel, however, said he informed the attorney general’s office that most of those employees were in the office of the commissioner of registration and superintendent of elections. "We don’t maintain their information," Paganelli said. There were a couple employees who transferred to county jobs, he said, and his office is complying with those requests. Superintendent of Elections Carmine Casciano — who was credited with bringing ballot irregularities to the attention of the prosecutor’s office — said his office had not yet been served with subpoenas for employee records. (Read, Star Ledger)

Ingle: Christie – with or without NJEA, education changes are coming

Gov.-elect Chris Christie says not only can we reduce spending, we have to. And if the Legislature can’t go along, he will use his veto. He says they won’t have enough votes to override. Appearing on 101.5 FM’s “Ask the Governor” (Governor-elect edition) Christie says he will speak out and name names and pointed out, he already has. ”Get used to it, you have four years coming” of his tell it like it is style. He says business taxes will drop in July when some taxes are scheduled to expire. He said he won’t renew them. In the short term, he said, the property tax link to funding education can’t be changed. He said he wants to try other ways before de-linking because that is just tax-shifting and he wants tax reduction. Asked what he would do to help unions thrive, Christie said the only way to do it is make business thrive by lowering business taxes. He said he doesn’t think the time is right to increase the cost of labor via laws to hike prevailing wages. A state worker said she saw waste and corruption and wanted to know what he would do to clean it up. Christie said he will do all he can to fix it. Christie said he told staff its job is not to replace Democratic hacks with Republican hacks. Their job is to do away with needless jobs. (Ingle, Gannett)

For Bedminster mayor, third nomination to Highlands council should be the charm

Mayor Robert F. Holtaway is expected to formally be named to the state Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council Thursday, but what was expected to be a routine appointment has been anything but for the Republican politician. Holtaway twice had his nomination revoked by Gov. Jon Corzine before it was approved by the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday without discussion, a process he said today he is relieved to have behind him. “It’s one of those things where your anticipations build up and then you’re crushed and have to go back to ground zero. But the third time is the charm I guess,” Holtaway said. “Somebody could probably still submarine it if they want to but I hope they have better things to do with their time.” The full Senate is expected to confirm his nomination officially Thursday. The controversy began last spring when Holtaway was first floated as a nominee to the council, created in 2004 to oversee the protection of New Jersey’s water supply as outlined by the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act. Peg Schaffer, a Bedminster resident and chair of the Somerset County Democratic Party, lodged a complaint with Corzine contending Holtaway was ill-fit to serve on the Council because Bedminster had been at odds with local environmental groups over proposed plans to place athletic fields near the protected habitat of the endangered wood turtle.(Stirling, Star Ledger)

NJ treasury officials freeze discretionary spending accounts

State treasury officials have frozen discretionary spending accounts across state government for at least the next few weeks while they determine how the state will cure its midyear budget deficit. The same directive that last week froze $20.6 million in aid to municipalities has also put the brakes on about $13.2 million in grants to arts groups and slowed state spending for all but safety purposes. Gov.-elect Chris Christie's transition team had urged Gov. Jon S. Corzine's administration to freeze discretionary spending, among other steps, even before the state updated its deficit projection to $1 billion — a figure Christie's aides think could go higher. "In view of the budgetary shortfall and cash-flow conditions, and also in response to what the incoming administration has requested that we do, which is to keep spending in check, the administration has taken steps to put discretionary spending on hold," said Tom Vincz, a spokesman for the state Department of the Treasury. Vincz said the administration is developing an $800 million budget-balancing plan Corzine has said he'll announce by Christmas. Half of those changes will come from the budgets of the state departments, Vincz said. (Symons, Gannett)

Middlesex Borough Democrats consider Edwards' replacement

With the resignation of Bob Edwards, next year's Borough Council will have as many new faces as old, and with a new mayor in place as well, council members both old and new see an opportunity for significant progress in revitalizing the municipality. "I definitely see this as a real change in the way things had been done," said Mayor Robert Sherr, a Republican elected on Nov. 3 to fill a two-year unexpired term. "I think it's going to be a fresh start for the whole council," echoed first-term Republican council member Michael Class. Edwards' departure on Friday will leave the governing body with three new members by the time it reorganizes Jan. 1 — Republicans Jeffrey First and Michael Paff won their first three-year terms on Nov. 3, and a new member is expected to be named to fill Edwards' slot within the next three weeks, although the upcoming year-end holidays could slightly alter that schedule. Edwards informed the Borough Clerk's Office of his decision Friday. It was not an unexpected move; he had missed 12 of the past 15 meetings, reportedly because of a new job that took him out of state. Edwards never responded to questions by the Courier News concerning his status on the council. (Grant, Gannett)

  Morning News Digest: December 9, 2009