Morning News Digest: January 12, 2010

Assembly passes Booker-championed prisoner reentry bills

 The Assembly on Monday approved a series of bills vociferously trumpeted by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, aimed at cutting recidivism by improving inmate education and job training, as the big city mayor heads into a reelection contest come May. Sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman and Assembly members Albert Coutinho, Elease Evans, Mila M. Jasey, L. Grace Spencer and Cleopatra G. Tucker, the prisoner reentry reform package stems from a series of hearings that Watson Coleman hosted throughout New Jersey last year to hear from citizens and experts on how to cut into recidivism and save public money. Booker’s chief allies in the assembly, Coutinho and Spencer, first ran for office in 2007 on a platform anchored by a promise to improve education and job training for those released from prison. According to a press release issued this afternoon by the Assembly Democrats following the bill’s successful passage, “about 14,000 inmates are annually released from New Jersey correctional facilities, with 65 percent of adults re-arrested within five years. Taxpayers pay about $48,000 per year per inmate. …The bills have been significantly amended and scaled back from the initial six-bill package to reduce and delay costs.” “The idea that we would willingly continue to fork over $48,000 in taxpayer money per year for every inmate and find that acceptable is hard to comprehend,” said Watson Coleman. “This waste of money and lives cannot continue, and as we look to save money, stopping it is the moral and smart thing to do.” The majority leader said the state would save $1.3 million for every 1 percent reduction in recidivism. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Rooney wants to be DEP commissioner

Assemblyman John Rooney (R-Northvale) has served in the Legislature for 26 years, making him the longest serving current assemblyman. This is his last day. “Two years ago I was in horrible shape,” said Rooney, who suffered a series of problems with his knee and hip that led him to consider retirement. “I kind of made up my mind back then I was going to pack it in. I’m feeling a lot better. Had things been better then, I probably would have stayed.” Rooney listed three things he says were his biggest accomplishments: the creation of the Division of Developmental Disabilities; passing a parental notification law for abortions, although it was overturned by the State Supreme Court; and amending the state constitution to change the way legislative vacancies are filled. Rooney, an electrical consultant, does not want to retire, and he has something in mind: to become commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which he thinks his occupational background and years on the Environmental and Solid Waste Committee has prepared him for. “I’ve been in every environmental area. Been there, done that,” said Rooney. He submitted his resume along with a letter to Gov.-elect Christopher Christie’s transition team. He’s enlisted supporters to make calls on his behalf. He has not heard back. “I’ve got to resume it,” he said. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Chiappone wants new speaker to restore committee assignments and pay

There are three sitting legislators who have been indicted on corruption charges, but only one of them is here today. “I have only one wish: to be exonerated and fully restored to all my capacities as an assemblyman,” said Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone (D-Bayonne). Chiappone, who was charged in August with allegedly funneling a legislative aide’s paychecks into his personal and campaign accounts, sat at his desk and cast votes – despite having been stripped by Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) of his pay and committee assignments. The two other indicted assemblymen, L. Harvey Smith (D-Jersey City) and Joseph Vas (D-Perth Amboy), met with the same punishment. But, unlike Chiappone, neither has shown up since their indictments, and neither is going to be sworn in for a new term tomorrow. The conventional wisdom is that they have only remained in the Assembly so as not to give the appearance of an admission of guilt. Despite the sanctions, Chiappone, who has pleaded not guilty, said his fellow legislators have treated him respectfully. “I actually appreciate the show of respect and consideration I’ve been given by my colleagues,” he said. Chiappone said that he is trying to convince the new assembly leadership to give him back his committee assignments and pay. “There have been discussions on those issues and I’m looking forward to the inauguration tomorrow…. My aim is to get my situation resolved, and back to full restoration of work.” (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

 Kyrillos, Thompson remain neutral in GOP primary

State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Middletown) said today that it’s premature to make an endorsement in the 12th District Republican congressional primary between Fair Haven Mayor Michael Halfacre and venture capitalist Scott Sipprelle. “There’s some strong candidates running, and that’s a good and healthy thing,” said Kyrillos, whose hometown is split between the 12th and 6th Congressional Districts. “Mike [Halfacre] and I talked a little bit, and we’re going to talk some more.” Halfacre has been campaigning for the party nomination for almost a year, but Sipprelle started expressing interest last month and formally announced last week. Sipprelle plans a campaign kickoff event on Wednesday in Princeton. Assemblyman Samuel Thompson’s (R-Old Bridge) hometown is also split between the 12th and 6th Districts. He remains neutral as well, and said that a vigorous primary could actually help raise the profile of the eventual nominee, who will have an uphill battle against incumbent U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-Princeton). ”If you have some well-known, excellent candidate, you might be better off [without a primary]” he said. “If they don’t kill each other, and you start with an unknown, they will become known to the public through a primary.” (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

 Kean’s floor remarks on marriage equality ignite Facebook feeding frenzy

 In the aftermath of the state senate’s defeat of marriage equality last week, a Facebook group wants the political scalp of at least one lawmaker, launching a page this weekend singling out the Republican senator from Wall with the “shame” tag and vowing to “Unseat Sean Kean.” Claiming 968 fans and counting as of this afternoon, the page listing Paul Vail as a committee member contact says “Senator Sean T. Kean betrayed his constituents by voting against marriage equality (S-1967). The Committee to Unseat Sean Kean will work toward his defeat in the 2011 election.” “We weren’t surprised by the vote, but we were outraged by the speech,” said Thomas Mannix, a software company management consultant and one of three core committee members along with Vail and Tim Horn, all of Asbury Park. “I think he was trying to come across as a reasonable guy in his speech, but instead, he infuriated people,” said Mannix, who described “Unseat Sean Kean” as a bipartisan group dedicated to ousting the first term incumbent in 2011. “Sean Kean doesn’t represent a section of his constituency,”Mannix said. “We have no candidate yet, but we are willing to talk to candidates in either party or in any party. We’ve just started and people are already opening up their wallets. Remember, the vote was on Thursday, and phone calls started on Friday. We’re moving quickly to capitalize on the disappointment and frustration.” Kean admits his 11th District is likely the gayest in the state, but after a soul-searching floor speech in which he angrily derided those who in emails and communiques have bashed him as an opponent of civil rights, he voted against marriage equality. The senator told he has no regrets. “I haven’t seen it yet,” Kean said of the page. “I’m sorry if my speech was perceived as patronizing. I wanted to give the full spectrum of where I was coming from. Maybe I didn’t connect the dots well enough, but I voted the way I did out of respect for the institution of marriage. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” Kean added. “At the end of the day, the gay community felt really let down. But whichever way I voted, people would have been upset. In the speech, my intention was to address some extremely nasty, aggressive and over-the-top emails.” (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

 N.J. lawmakers votes to give financial control back to Camden

After more than seven years of state control over the poor, crime-ravaged city, Camden’s new mayor may get back much control over the city’s finances. Both the state Assembly and Senate voted today to restore a slew of powers to new Mayor Dana Redd, including the ability to raise taxes up to 3 percent, make or break contracts — including firing non-unionized workers — and appoint school board members. The bill requires the governor’s signature by next Wednesday. The changes remove a state-installed chief operating officer, which has been the overseer of Camden’s finances since 2002 when the state gave the city $175 million in exchange for significant control. But lawmakers say the effort to revive Camden, which when Gov. Christie Whitman, started adding state oversight, has been a failure. Camden had 34 homicides in 2009, down from 55 in 2008 when it was named the country’s most dangerous city. Last year, almost three-quarters of the city’s $175 million budget was state funded. The removal of state oversight does not mean the city is off life support. Tomorrow, Camden is going back to the state till for $67 million, its annual chunk of state aid. Gov.-elect Chris Christie has said he wants local control to go back to Camden, but he said today he would have preferred to see the power transferred back in stages. “Do I think they’re ready? I think that Mayor Redd is a good step forward, and the proof will be in the pudding,” he said. “We’ll see over time how this works. For me, I would have taken a different approach to it.” Republican and Democratic lawmakers have praised Redd, who stepped down from the Senate after being sworn in as mayor. “The state’s been a failure, a horrible failure,” Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said in committee last week. “If the resources were there with Dana as mayor controlling it, I think everyone here has confidence things would have been done much better.” For her part, Redd has insisted the bill is not about her. “I look forward to the day that Camden reduces its state dependence,” she said. “This is a pivotal moment for Camden. If we don’t make the difficult decisions today and set Camden up for success … then we will always be dependent on the state of New Jersey.” (AP)

 Richard Codey ends run as Senate President

 It was something Senate President Richard Codey had done countless times before — posing for a grip-and-grin photo in the ornate and empty Senate chamber, accepting a plaque in his honor. The man posing with him, Conor Fennessy of the New Jersey Apartment Association, thanked Codey for his advocacy as Codey prepared to relinquish his leadership post. “We’re going to miss you,” Fennessy said. “I’m not going anywhere,” Codey said.So it went Monday, Codey’s last at the center of New Jersey politics. Starting today, the Essex County Democrat and former governor will become just another face in the crowd when South Jersey Sen. Stephen Sweeney succeeds him as Senate President following a nasty internal fight. But while he’s losing plenty — prestige, perks and extraordinary control over the legislative agenda — Codey has no intention of fading away. “You’re a back-bencher if you let yourself be one,” Codey said in an interview. “I don’t need the title of senate president to be an activist and have my voice heard.” In his next life, Codey, 63, said he will continue to champion mental health care issues. He hasn’t decided what to do after his term expires in two years, and in the meantime, doesn’t yet know which committees he’ll belong to or even where he will sit on the Senate floor. An on-again, off-again supporter of Gov. Jon Corzine whose enemies are plentiful in both parties, Codey polls as the state’s most popular politician but never ran for statewide office. He led the Democrats’ Senate caucus for 12 years and became Senate president in 2004. On Monday, his stripped-down office became a clearinghouse for last-minute pleas for bills at the end of the lame duck session. While staffers packed away supplies for the move down the hall — pens, paper clips, a stamp reading “Office of the Governor” — Codey swayed in his chair. “You want me to get on top of the dome and jump off, too?” he joked after staffers explained one especially complex maneuver. Codey fielded calls, gabbing with Seton Hall basketball coach Bobby Gonzalez about recruits, and surprised Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie by popping into his news conference. He assured Christie that Democrats wouldn’t spend “too much” Monday — but also hinted he wouldn’t mind if this last session — and his time in the sun — lasted well into the night. “I brought my toothbrush and electric shaver,” Codey said. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

 New Jersey Lawmakers Pass Medical Marijuana Bill

The New Jersey Legislature approved a measure on Monday that would make the state the 14th in the nation, but one of the few on the East Coast, to legalize the use of marijuana to help patients with chronic illnesses. The measure — which would allow patients diagnosed with severe illnesses like cancer, AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, muscular dystrophy andmultiple sclerosis to have access to marijuana grown and distributed through state-monitored dispensaries — was passed by the General Assembly and State Senate on the final day of the legislative session. Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would sign it into law before leaving office next Tuesday. Supporters said that within nine months, patients with a prescription for marijuana from their doctors should be able to obtain it at one of six locations. “It’s nice to finally see a day when democracy helps heal people,” said Charles Kwiatkowski, 38, one of dozens of patients who rallied at the State House before the vote and broke into applause when the lawmakers approved the measure. Mr. Kwiatkowski, of Hazlet, N.J., who has multiple sclerosis, said his doctors have recommended marijuana to treat neuralgia, which causes him to lose the feeling and the use of his right arm and shoulders. “The M.S. Society has shown that this drug will help slow the progression of my disease. Why would I want to use anything else?” The bill’s approval, which comes after years of lobbying by patients’ rights groups and advocates of less restrictive drug laws, was nearly derailed at the 11th hour as some Democratic lawmakers wavered and Governor-elect Christopher J. Christie, a Republican, went to the State House and expressed reservations about it. In the end, however, it passed by comfortable margins in both houses: 48-14 in the General Assembly and 25-13 in the State Senate. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Princeton who sponsored the legislation, said New Jersey’s would be the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the nation because it would permit doctors to prescribe it for only a set list of serious, chronic illnesses. The law would also forbid patients from growing their own marijuana and from using it in public, and it would regulate the drug under the strict conditions used to track the distribution of medically prescribed opiates like Oxycontin and morphine. Patients would be limited to two ounces of marijuana per month. “I truly believe this will become a model for other states because it balances the compassionate use of medical marijuana while limiting the number of ailments that a physician can prescribe it for,” Mr. Gusciora said. (Kociniewski, New York Times)

 NJ lawmakers approve bill legalizing medical marijuana  

New Jerseyans suffering from debilitating diseases would be able to get prescriptions for marijuana to ease their pain under a bill that passed both legislative houses today. The Assembly approved the “Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana” bill 48-14; the Senate passed it 25-13. Gov. Jon Corzine has said he would sign the bill into law before he leaves office Jan. 19. The bill is expected to take effect in six months, making New Jersey the 14th state to allow marijuana use for medical purposes. Sponsors declared it the toughest in the country. The law would forbid people from growing their own pot; license “alternate treatment centers” to dispense the drug and require designated caretakers who retrieve the drug on behalf of a severely ill person to undergo criminal background checks. “I don’t think we should make criminals out of our very sick and terminally ill. It does not make sense for many of New Jersey’s residents to suffer when there is a viable way to ease their pain,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), one of the bill’s sponsors. “But this is a responsible bill with enough oversight to prevent the abuses that have been reported in other states.’’ The bill passed the Senate without debate, but not without opposition. Assembly John Rooney (R-Bergen) urged his colleagues to allow incoming Gov. Chris Christie, the former U.S. attorney, to retool the measure. “There are other drugs. There are many ways to relieve pain,’’ Rooney said. “The U.S attorney is an expert in area of drug enforcement, Let him recommend controls. There are too many loopholes.” The Senate recessed mid-session before returning to pass the bill. Audience members applauded and hugged. A handful of people who have risked prosecution to use marijuana rallied at the Statehouse earlier today. “I’m so excited to be able to be alive and to be here for this moment,” said Diane Riportella, 53, of Egg Harbor Township. Diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in September of 2007, Riportella said no medication eases her pain like marijuana.”Within a few seconds, I’m relaxed and I’m smiling and I go to Disneyland just for a few minutes and say it’s not so bad, I can live another day, ” she said. (Graber, Star Ledger)

N.J. lawmakers approve unionization of state prosecutors

A bill allowing deputy attorneys general to unionize squeaked through the Legislature tonight. Mid-level lawyers at the attorney general’s office said they need a union to lobby for better pay and working conditions. “It will help put some sense of stability and safety in the work arrangements,” said Sen Fred Madden (D-Gloucester), whose committee cleared the bill. The bill (S3071) now goes to the governor for his signature. Outgoing Attorney General Anne Milgram said deputies need better pay because they make less than their counterparts at other government agencies. “I cannot say it starkly enough,” she told the Senate Labor Committee last month. “I do not believe the department will continue to succeed unless we solve this problem.” But Milgram expressed concern that a union would prevent an attorney general to shift resources around the department. Deputy Attorney General Andrew Reese, one of the lawyers pushing for unionization, has said collective bargaining would not restrict the attorney general’s authority. Tonight, the bill’s supporters put it up for a vote in the Senate, but it stalled at 20 votes, one less than required. A gang of senators stood in the center of the chamber conferring with each other, then decided to hold off until they secured one more vote. It finally passed 21-15 when Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) returned to the chamber and nodded to an aide, who pushed the button for the final yes vote.The bill then moved to the Assembly, where it passed 45-28 without debate. (Megerian, Star Ledger)

N.J. Gov.-elect does not rule out raising NJ Transit fares

Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who has railed against New Jersey’s mix of high taxes, fees and tolls, today would not rule out raising fares on NJ Transit trains and buses as he introduced two of his transportation policymakers. Christie emphasized his overall commitment to hold the line on costs, saying “the people of New Jersey are taking too much money out of their own pocket already for the operations of state government.” But he declined to “take a firm position” on fares because he said that would tie the hands of James Weinstein, named today as executive director of the transit agency, as he tackles its budget. Christie reiterated his vow not to raise the gas tax to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, a state account for road and transit projects that officials say will run out of money by 2011. The incoming governor’s nominee for Department of Transportation commissioner, Jim Simpson, said the new administration would explore “a whole host” of ways to replenish the fund, but he did not go into detail. “We need to look beyond the gas tax, we need to look at public-private partnerships,” Simpson said. Simpson and Weinstein were the first in a series of cabinet appointments Christie plans to announce this week. The Republican takes office next Tuesday. Weinstein replaces Richard Sarles, who announced his retirement today. Simpson, if approved by the Senate, would succeed Stephen Dilts. Weinstein served as transportation commissioner for Gov. Christie Whitman and in the administration of Gov. Tom Kean. “We’re in challenging times,” Weinstein said, calling the agency “important not only to the mobility of the state, it’s important to the economy of the state.” Last year, NJ Transit approved a $1.79 billion budget that did not raise fares, despite a $62 million cut in state aid. The agency found savings through employee costs and what it called “modest service reductions.” Simpson is a former administrator of the Federal Transit Administration and a former commissioner of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York. Christie said the officials immediately will take “a complete look” at the $8.7 billion effort to build a commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River. “We support the project,” Christie said. “Now the question is, can we make the project better and how does the project fit during these really challenging economic times?” (Heininger, Star Ledger)

Essex County elections chief back to work after being charged in employee pay scheme

Carmine Casciano, the veteran Essex County superintendent of elections, was back on the job today, just days after he was charged with official misconduct in a scheme to give paid days off to employees who worked on political campaigns. “He’s tending to his business as usual. He’s continuing to perform the functions that he’s mandated to perform,” said his attorney, Henry Klingeman of Newark. On Friday, the state Attorney General’s Office said Casciano — a longtime superintendent of elections — was charged with instructing one or more county employees to keep a log of days they campaigned so they could be paid and then attempted a coverup by ordering the records altered or destroyed. The charges against Casciano is the outgrowth of an ever-broadening investigation that had ensnared 10 defendants accused of election fraud in the 2007 campaign of state Sen. Teresa Ruiz. Ruiz, who won handily, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Today, Gov.-elect Chris Christie, asked about the case against Casciano, reiterated his belief about public officials charged with wrongdoing. “Do I think he should step aside? I do,” he said. “You have an absolute constitutional right of the presumption of innocence. You do not have a constitutional right to public office.” Under current law, there is no statutory authority to remove an official from office based on a charge of a crime. Only a conviction would trigger a removal. During the gubernatorial campaign, Christie indicated that he will propose legislation to immediately suspend any public official charged with a crime. Casciano, who as election superintendent earns $102,050 a year, is a so-called constitutional officer appointed by the state and confirmed by the legislature. (Read, Star Ledger)

 Easy ride for North Jersey incumbents

An all-out battle for control of Congress around the country is coming this year, and Republicans energized by Governor-elect Chris Christie’s victory are hoping a Tea Party-powered surge will eradicate the Democratic expansion of the last two elections. But North Jersey could be watching this fight from the sidelines, as it did in 2006 when Democrats seized power. A New Jersey incumbent hasn’t been defeated in a House of Representatives race in 12 years, and district lines drawn in 2002 by the two political parties made incumbents safer. “Even as New Jersey prides itself on its bipartisan commission for redistricting, it has succeeded in limiting the competition in House races across the state this decade,” said David Wasserman, editor of House races for Cook Political Report. The president’s party is always vulnerable in midterm elections, and all signs point to that being true again this year. But Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr. of Paterson and Steve Rothman of Fair Lawn represent two of the most reliably Democratic districts in the country, according to the Cook report. Neither of the two potential Republican candidates who have contacted Bergen County GOP Chairman Bob Yudin about challenging Rothman has held office before. Robert Lebovics of Englewood is a noted ear, nose and throat specialist who ran an unsuccessful campaign for state Senate in 2005; Michael Agosta of Fair Lawn is an Army veteran and former federal air marshal. Roland Straten, the Montclair businessman who challenged Pascrell two years ago, is weighing another run, as are some other people whose names Passaic County Republican Chairman Scott Rumana was not prepared to release. Rumana said it should be a good year to take on Pascrell because of widespread anger and frustration with Democrats. “It’s in weird places, places that are not normally political, like I overhear people when I’m at the sink shaving at the YMHA in Passaic, where I exercise,” Rumana said. “How far that goes in a race, who knows? I don’t have a crystal ball.” Not far enough, say veteran handicappers in Washington, who have already labeled the Pascrell and Rothman seats “safe.” Along with the districts’ makeup and the incumbents’ ability to raise money — Pascrell’s campaign account had $1.4 million on Oct. 1, Rothman’s had $1.8 million — the high cost of television advertising in New Jersey means a challenger has to start with high name identification or spend heavily to build it, and then spend more to promote themselves as better than the incumbent. Republicans could find themselves feeling as Democrats did in 2006 and 2008, when a rising tide for their party did little to hurt Republican Rep. Scott Garrett of Wantage. Indeed, as Barack Obama brought out new voters around the country, Garrett saw his 2008 winning margin increase over his 2006 margin. Bergen County Democratic Chairman Michael Kasparian said he has heard several names of potential challengers to Garrett, but, “No elected officials I know of at this point, and no one with any real name recognition is stepping up.” (Jackson, The Record)

Stile: Pay cut – maverick move or same old?

Democratic lawyer Esther Suarez took an unusual step for a career multiple-jobholder: She took a pay cut. Suarez was confirmed as a Superior Court judge by the full Senate on Monday, which means she will have to quit her three taxpayer-supported jobs. Suarez now collects $205,000 from her three public posts: Bergen County counsel, county adjuster and general counsel of the Union City Parking Authority. But a Superior Court judge’s salary is about $165,000, which would make for a $40,000 cut. This is not the way things normally happen in the multiple-dipping New Jersey — the politically connected rarely surrender a source of public income unless they get a better-paying job. “The ability to be a judge — it’s such an honor and it is something that I would gladly take whether it was a salary cut or not,” Suarez told the Senate Judiciary committee hearing last Thursday. As the 213th Legislature formally ends at noon today, Suarez’s switch from multiple to single public jobholder seemed it could be a watershed moment, another sign that the political class finally understands that holding multiple public jobs and salting away multiple pensions is no longer acceptable to a recession-battered public. Just last month, a state report accused a Gloucester County Democratic Party official of improperly stockpiling pension credits for more than a dozen public positions. A Hudson County tax board reappointment was scuttled amid complaints that four public posts was just too many. And now, an ambitious and well-regarded lawyer appears to have read the writing on the wall and heard Republican Governor-elect Chris Christie’s “one job-one person” thunder. She pulled some strings and simplified her workday. But Suarez’s decision to streamline doesn’t easily fit the Escape From Hackdom storyline. She sought a judgeship two years ago when she lived in Bergen County, but her marriage to political consultant Keith Furlong and a move to Wayne last year forced her to restart the tedious process of building political support in her new home county — where any one of five state senators could arbitrarily blackball the nomination without ever having to explain why. “I don’t mind giving up everything I am doing, although I enjoy it all,” she said. Still, Suarez’s testimony about the harried life as a multiple public jobholder offers a useful sketch for those seeking to banish the practice. The testimony itself was prodded out of her by Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Teaneck Democrat who has waged her own (largely ignored) attack on multiple jobholding. Weinberg introduced a resolution urging public officials to not accept health benefits and pension credits from part-time public positions. Weinberg also waged a mini-war against now-deposed Bergen County Democratic Organization leader Joe Ferriero. Suarez is a byproduct of the Ferriero machine, becoming county counsel during the entirety of Ferriero-protégé Dennis McNerney’s reign as Bergen executive that began in January 2003. Suarez provided Weinberg a rare, and a too-good-to-be-true target, a twofer — a multiple-dipper whose career was fostered by a political enemy. (Stile, The Record)

Morning News Digest: January 12, 2010