Morning News Digest: January 21, 2010

State workers union prepares for Christie’s ‘chopping license’

Today’s Quinnipiac University poll made one thing clear above all else: Gov. Christopher Christie has a mandate to layoff and furlough state workers – or, as poll director Maurice Carroll put it, a “chopping license.” Not only do New Jersey residents support layoffs or furloughs for state workers by a margin of 58% to 35%, but even the majority of union households, 50% to 44%, think those drastic measures should be taken. And the perception that the state is in dire fiscal straits is held all but universally, with 80% of respondents categorizing the state’s budget problems as “very serious” and another 17% calling them “somewhat serious.” “They figure he’s going to go after the unions, and apparently he’ll have support doing it,” said Carroll. Faced with those numbers, state workers unions know they are in for a tough budget battle with Christie, who in his inaugural address yesterday pledged deep cuts but was short on specifics. They will not lie down, however. “Do we think that we have a public relations problem? Is there a widespread misunderstanding? Absolutely – there’s no question about it,” said Bob Master, the regional director for Communications Workers of America (CWA) – the largest state workers union in New Jersey. “But what you accomplish if you lay people off is you undermine services. You weaken an economy that is already in horrible shape.” The push back from the public sector unions like the CWA and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is in its fledgling stages. The groups have not tried to provoke Christie during his post-election honeymoon. But they are regrouping. Today, hundreds of shop stewards from the CWA met at the War Memorial in Trenton, where they were expected to discuss the upcoming budget battle with Christie. “What’s the strategy? We’re working on it. We’re preparing a media campaign and a public communications campaign and a lobbying campaign and a membership mobilization campaign that starts today,” said Master, who added that most of the poll respondents probably did not know about the furlough days and wage freezes (the severity of which are up for debate) that the union agreed to last year. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Weinberg upset that Corzine did not veto referendum bill

Making up for her accidental ‘yes’ vote on a bill forcing a 10-year waiting period on referendums that would change the form of municipal governments, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) lobbied outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine to veto it. At first, it looked like Weinberg succeeded. On the last night of his term, Corzine’s office announced that he vetoed five pieces of legislation, including the referendum bill, which passed both houses of the legislature with the bare minimum number of votes. But the next day, 13 minutes before Christopher Christie was sworn in as governor, Corzine’s office issued a revised list of bills he took action on. There was only one difference between the new list and the one from the previous night, and it was not pointed out explicitly. The referendum bill was moved from the vetoed list to the signed list. “I lobbied him to veto the legislation, and I think that’s what he should have done. It’s bad public policy, it’s bad government, it’s bad politics,” said Weinberg, who ran for lieutenant governor on Corzine’s ticket and said that the move was a disappointing way for Corzine to depart the office. “To change the law to take Democratic action away form the citizens is to me a rather serious step.” The bill was considered to be aimed directly at Empower our Neighborhoods, a Rutgers student-based reform group that in November narrowly lost a ballot question to change the way city councilmen are elected from all at-large to a mixed at-large and ward-based system. That would, in theory, pave the way for some councilmen not aligned with the local machine. Although the bill was sponsored in the assembly by Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth), legislators reported that Assemblyman Joseph Egan (D-New Brunswick), who is also a New Brunswick councilman, lobbied the Democratic assembly caucus to vote ‘yes’ for it. Egan could not immediately be reached for comment. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ) Hawthorne councilwoman pleads guilty to social security fraud Hawthorne Councilwoman Shirley Shortway-English has resigned her council seat after making a surprise guilty plea today to fraudulently taking about $17,000 in social security benefits. The 55-year-old Republican, whose family figures prominently into North Jersey politics, had just won reelection in November and was sworn into a second four-year term earlier this month. According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, Shortway-English took $17,005 in benefits for a claimed disability that she said left her unable to work. She continued to work during that same time period at Shortway’s Barn, a family restaurant in Hawthorne. The council will pick a replacement for Shortway-English from a list of three names submitted by the Hawthorne Republican Commtitee. The committee has 15 days to submit the names, and the council has 15 days to pick a successor. “This is tragic day for Shirley and the entire Shortway family, which has given so much to the borough for many decades. We are, of course, saddened by the news concerning Councilwoman Shortway and our prayers go out to her and her family,” said Hawthorne GOP Chairwoman Barbara Zakur. Shortway-English remains free on bond pending her sentencing on April 26. She faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, though the actual penalty is likely to be much less severe. She has already paid back the money she improperly received. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Gov. Chris Christie signs executive orders, says state is $1B deeper in debt

 In the first hours of his term, Gov. Chris Christie today announced the state is $1 billion deeper in the red and signed a series of executive orders that could have sweeping consequences for towns, businesses and labor unions. The text of the eight executive orders was not immediately released, leaving advocates scrambling to interpret the new landscape. Christie said they included fulfilling campaign pledges to halt unfunded mandates on towns, freeze new regulations on business and broaden state pay-to-play prohibitions to limit donations by labor unions — a key Democratic constituency. Among the other executive orders were steps to make state spending more transparent online, and to ensure casino regulators can continue to work in the event of a state government shutdown — unlike in 2006, when Atlantic City gambling halls were shuttered during a week-long budget dispute. Christie said he was not laying the groundwork for such gridlock this June, when he will have to agree on a budget with a Democrat-controlled Legislature. Christie criticized outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine for leaving a “final parting gift” of an undisclosed $1 billion shortfall in the current budget, which runs through June. The Republican said he learned of the deficit at 2 p.m. Tuesday, two hours after he took the oath of office, and would begin to tackle it by meeting with economic advisors on Thursday. “It’s my responsibility now, not his,” Christie said at a late-morning press conference. Christie would not say how he would close the gap, other than to rule out raising taxes. He said he would try to implement a Corzine cost-cutting proposal to require school districts with excess surplus to use the money in place of state aid beginning next month. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

Christie energizes North Jersey GOP 

When Governor Christie declared “It is long overdue time to bring our pride back” near the end of his inaugural speech Tuesday, he was referring to repairing people’s confidence in the entire state of New Jersey. North Jersey Republicans, however, are hoping he can do the same for them, leading a resurgence of the party that started with several Republican victories last year when Christie headed up the ticket. “Bergen County Republicans are very hopeful for 2010,” said Robert Ortiz, the former GOP county chairman. Republican leaders argue that Christie’s ascension represents the start of a reversal of fortunes for the party, which has often found itself marginalized in Democratic-dominated Bergen and Passaic counties. They cited the presence of a popular county executive candidate in Bergen County Clerk Kathleen Donovan at the top of the 2010 ticket, the growing national dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party, the continuing fallout after last fall’s fraud conviction of former Democratic party leader Joseph Ferriero and the political power of holding the governor’s mansion as factors that could signal a successful fall for Republicans. “Chris Christie is energizing the base in Bergen County,” said Assemblyman Robert Schroeder, R-Washington Township, as he entered the War Memorial on Tuesday before the speech. “He’s going to give us the leadership and direction to move forward.” Republican candidates for freeholder in Bergen and Passaic counties won election in November, breaking a years-long Democratic stranglehold on both boards. Robert Yudin, chairman of the Bergen County Republican Organization, believes this year will bring more of the same. “I think you’re going to have an overwhelming Republican sweep,” he said. Yudin pointed out that Christie, who made a number of campaign visits to Bergen, performed relatively well there when compared with previous Republican gubernatorial candidates, though he still captured fewer votes than Governor Corzine. That could help local Republicans in the fall if they rely on Christie to invigorate fund-raising efforts. The party, which seemed to coalesce behind Christie with little infighting after he won the June primary, will have to maintain a unified front if it wants to continue to succeed despite a disadvantage in voter registration, Ortiz said. “This is not a partisan day,” she said after the speech. “It’s a whole new day for New Jersey.” (Ax, The Record) 

N.J. Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon to be named president of Board of Public Utilities 

State Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon, a former county and federal prosecutor who has made headlines throughout his career, will be named as the new president of the state Board of Public Utilities today, three people briefed on the nomination said. Solomon will be introduced by Gov. Chris Christie at a Statehouse news conference, according to the people, who declined to be identified in advance of the official announcement. Solomon is the latest in a long line of officials tapped by Christie to serve in his administration after working for Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Solomon declined to comment. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak also had no comment. Before he was tapped for a judgeship in 2005, Solomon was the first deputy U.S. attorney for New Jersey, a position Christie created in 2002. At the time, Christie, himself newly appointed, was trying to assuage concerns by South Jersey legislators and law enforcement officials that the federal prosecutor’s office had neglected their region. While the U.S. attorney’s office for the New Jersey district maintains offices in Camden and Trenton, the majority of the federal prosecutors, and its top officers, work in Newark. Solomon became the ranking prosecutor in the lower half of the state, supervising the two offices and reporting directly to Christie. Solomon had previously served as Camden County prosecutor and as a county freeholder and state assemblyman. (Margolin, Star Ledger) 

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie issues order curbing political donations by unions

Gov. Chris Christie began his term today by testing the limits of his power, issuing an executive order curbing political donations by labor unions that Democrats and union leaders insisted would not withstand legal challenges. The executive order was one of eight signed by the Republican governor as he used his first full day to live up to campaign promises, settle scores and lay down markers of authority. Christie also tore into former Gov. Jon Corzine for leaving a “final parting gift” of an undisclosed $1 billion shortfall in the current state budget — a claim disputed by Corzine. Christie said the executive orders will spur economic growth by halting unfunded mandates on towns and freezing “non-essential” rules and regulations that hamper businesses. Others would make state spending more transparent online and ensure casino regulators can continue to work in the event of a state government shutdown — unlike in 2006, when Atlantic City gambling halls were shuttered during a week-long budget dispute. Christie said he was not laying the groundwork for such gridlock this June, when he will have to agree on a budget with a Democrat-controlled Legislature. But his Executive Order No. 7 — broadening campaign finance rules to limit donations by labor unions that have state contracts — drew immediate objections from Democrats. Organized labor, a traditional Democratic constituency, worked feverishly against Christie during the campaign. “This will cut the legs out of Democratic fundraising. It will not go unchallenged and it will not stand,” said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), a prolific fundraiser. “It’s clearly an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights of working men and women of New Jersey.” Bob Master, a spokesman for the largest state workers union, the Communications Workers of America, also called the order “unconstitutional.” “I don’t know what his motivation is. It seems to me to be way, way over the top,” Master said. “I just don’t see how it withstands legal muster.” Christie said he was simply bringing unions in line with other “business entities,” such as law and engineering firms that have state contracts worth more than $17,500. Those businesses are barred from donating more than $300 to statewide campaigns, but freer to give in local races. (Heininger/Margolin, Star Ledger)

Imprisoned ex-N.J. Sen. Wayne Bryant gets his full pension revoked

His attempts to boost his pension landed him in federal prison. Now former state Sen. Wayne Bryant could lose his full payout. A state board today voted 6-0 to revoke Bryant’s full pension, which had tripled to nearly $84,000 a year thanks to several fictitious or low-show jobs in the last few years of his 27-year career. The longtime state lawmaker from Camden is serving a four-year sentence in a West Virginia federal prison for bribing his way into one job and accepting pension credits for work he had employees do. “It is clear that the intent of the pension system is to have the benefit to participants that are individuals that perform the service, not a law firm, not other people and not no one,” board member Ned Thomson said. “The nature of the corruption is one that is so rarely seen by this board.” Bryant’s attorney handling the pension case, Samuel Halpern, said what Bryant did was wrong but should not taint his full pension and the board should deduct just for the jobs involved in the criminal case from 2002 to 2006. “This gentleman had such an illustrious career in the state senate, with service to localities in South Jersey, and it’s tragic it has come to such an end,” he said. “This is a case that almost reads like a Shakespearean tragedy.” (Fleisher, Star Ledger)

Robert Laurino is sworn in as acting Essex County prosecutor

A longtime Essex County assistant prosecutor has been named acting prosecutor, appointed by his former boss, Paula Dow, who is now acting state attorney general. Robert Laurino, who has spent 30 years at the prosecutor’s office, most recently as chief assistant prosecutor, was sworn in today in Superior Court in Newark. Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who nominated Dow, a Democrat, as his attorney general last month, has yet to pick a replacement to lead the Essex office, which handles the most criminal cases of any county in New Jersey. Once the governor makes that selection — traditionally on the recommendation of local political leaders — the state Senate must confirm the candidate. At Gov. Christie’s inaugural gala Tuesday night in Newark, Dow described Laurino as a talented, veteran prosecutor. “He’s going to be well-reasoned,” said Dow, who was sworn in as acting attorney general that afternoon. “He’s tough but sensitive.” Laurino, 58, began moving into his new office yesterday, and said his immediate focus is on the coming budget. But plans extend beyond that, saying he wants to see a training initiative that familiarizes assistant prosecutors with forensic evidence. At his swearing-in, Laurino answered the question of how long he’ll remain in charge. “Basically, I’m here indefinitely,” he told more than 100 assistant prosecutors on hand. “As long as it takes, we’re going to do the job. And as you well know, that will be a very, very long time.” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who recommended Dow for the position of prosecutor in 2003, said Laurino will “do a great job … This will be a smooth transition because he worked so closely with her.” (Friedman, Star Ledger)

Bramnick Gets Budget Seat in Assembly Committee Reshuffle, Munoz Joins Tourism Committee

A Westfielder will be part of the committee devising the state budget for the next two years, Patch has learned. Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) has been appointed to the Assembly budget committee by Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Morris County) under a committee list unveiled to Assembly Republicans on Wednesday afternoon. The committee, one of the most powerful and prestigious in the Assembly, takes on added responsibility given the current fiscal crisis in the state. Gov. Chris Christie announced Wednesday morning that the state is facing an additional $1 billion shortfall in the current state budget. Bramnick and his budget committee colleagues will review proposals from Christie’s office and state Treasurer-designate Andrew Eristoff regarding ways to fix the shortfall in the current budget and gear up for the adoption of the next budget. Under state law, Christie will be presenting his proposal for the next state budget to the legislature on March 1. A balanced state budget will need to be adopted by July 1, the start of the state’s next fiscal year. Christie has not outlined what he is planning to propose in his budget, but options discussed during last year’s campaign include cuts to the state workforce, changes to the state pension system and reworking the state aid formula and payments to local governments and school systems. Christie has hinted that a restructuring of state government is one area where he is looking to achieve savings. The new governor has indicated plans to combine the offices of comptroller, auditor, public advocate and inspector general into a new watchdog agency. The budget committee will review all of these proposals and help devise the final budget. Bramnick is considered a close Christie ally, campaigning with him around the state and hosting several private fundraisers at his Westfield home. Bramnick was on Christie’s short list for lieutenant governor. The Westfield lawmaker, who also is the number two Republican in the Assembly, will attend his first budget committee meeting on Monday, under plans announced Wednesday by Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex County). (Celock, Westfield Patch)


Stile: Christie acknowledges that he can’t do everything himself

Governor Christie delivered a memorable, “The Buck Stops Here” line Tuesday, with his characteristic, in-your-face, Jersey bluntness. “One person can make a difference — I will make a difference,” Christie said, eliciting the 19th burst of applause in his inaugural speech Tuesday. But Tuesday’s grand ritual under the dim orange glow of the Trenton War Memorial was not solely Christie’s moment. Nor did it signal the Republican Party’s long-awaited restoration, even though jubilant allies of the heyday of Governors DiFrancesco, Whitman and Kean wove through the crowd, a little more jowly and gray. Christie’s inaugural ushered in a new coalition government, the beginning of a power-sharing arrangement between the pragmatic Christie Republicans and the business-before-ideology Democrats allied with George Norcross, the fierce, silver-maned South Jersey power broker who was safely ensconced near the center of the auditorium, 15 aisles away from the stage. Christie clearly laid out his vision, striking Rooseveltian chords of resolve — “fear and uncertainty are not necessary and do not have to be permanent” — and Reaganesque chords of optimism — “we have the tools for a brighter future, if we change direction” — but he also made a symbolic bow to the ascendancy of Norcross, perhaps the most prominent Democratic power broker who eluded Christie’s anti-corruption crusade during his seven years as U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Midway through the speech, Christie summoned Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Norcross’s high school pal and political ally, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver of Essex, who won the post in November in a deal brokered with the South Jersey faction. “I ask Senator Sweeney and Speaker Oliver to come and stand with me and join in a handshake of resolve and friendship, in a handshake of commitment to stand for our principles — but to never abandon our duty to serve the people,” Christie said. He patted Sweeney on the back. The crowd roared with approval. Christie demonstrated Tuesday that he has the bully pulpit and he is not afraid to use it, but that he doesn’t necessarily have his hands on all the levers of power. (Stile, The Record)

Albright: Census count stands to cost New Jersey a seat in Congress

The federal Census begins April l. And New Jersey won’t like the final tally President Barack Obama will deliver to Congress Jan. 3, 2011. New Jersey is projected to come in 37th in population growth among the states in the last decade. This tally is expected to cost the state a congressional seat and federal aid. By Nov. 15, the legislative Apportionment Commission will be appointed by the Democratic and Republican state chairmen. By June 15 next year, the same group will appoint the members of the Congressional Districting Commission. They’ll draw new lines – including across Hudson County – based on the Census for use this decade. Before then, however, Democrats could have a problem in the Nov. 2 election. Jon Ruynon, a former Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle – now a San Diego Charger – has accepted overtures from Burlington County Republicans to oppose freshman Democratic Congressman John Adler, of Cherry Hill, in the Nov. 2 election. Adler benefited from a bitter GOP primary fight in June 2008, and won the election 94,000 to 92,000 votes, aided by Barack Obama’s coattails. The Eagles are popular in South Jersey. Ex-Eagle Runyon soars. (Albright, Jersey Journal)

Mulshine: Mitt Romney’s on wrong side of Massachusetts mandate

It is fitting that the election victory that could sink nationalized health care came in the state where the original tea party was held. When Massachusetts voters elected Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in a special election Tuesday, they provided the vote that could keep Congress from enacting the exact sort of infringement on individual liberty that led the colonists to toss that tea in Boston harbor back in the 18th century. They also unveiled a fault line in the 21st century Republican politics that remains invisible to most media commentators. When these commentators try to comprehend the tea party phenomenon, asFrank Rich of the New York Times did the other day, they always go off-track by identifying the movement with Sarah Palin, whose attractiveness exceeds her intellect by a considerable margin. The same seems true of Brown, the former male model who immediately upon election to the Senate began blathering about all sorts of things unrelated to the reality of what his victory means, which is the likely death of the Obama health plan. The reason for his rambling is not hard to deduce: As a state legislator, Brown voted for Obamacare in its original form, which was Romneycare. Though Mitt Romney has spent the past year trying to deny it, the health insurance plan that he helped enact back in 2006 when he was governor of Massachusetts was the progenitor of the plan now before Congress. Central to that plan is the individual mandate to buy health insurance. These days every Republican in Congress is ready to vote against the mandate. But not so long ago, there were as many Republicans as Democrats who supported Romney’s rationalization for the mandate: “We insist that everybody who drives a car has insurance. And cars are a lot less expensive than people.” (Mulshine, Star Ledger)

Mulshine: Who’s the most liberal Republican? Who’s the most conservative Democrat?

Check the Americans for Prosperity website here for the ratings of all New Jersey legislators. You’ll find some interesting results. Perhaps the most embarrassing for the GOP is that Assemblyman Joe Malone, who is the Republican budget officer, rates an F. That’s not a good sign for the GOP, especially since he’s from a safe district. In fact there are quite a few Republicans from safe districts who have ratings that indicate liberal leanings on the AFP scale, which is weighted toward economic issues. That includes Tom Kean, who is the Senate Minority Leader and who scores a D. Among the Assembly members who got A’s is the recently retired Rick Merkt of Morris County, who ran in the gubernatorial primary against Gov. Chris Christie and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. Lonegan lost and returned to his position as head of the Jersey chapter of AFP. However, the rankings don’t betray any bias on his part. They are based on a list of votes you can find here. Among the reasons I remain so skeptical of Christie is that he is allied mostly with the moderate-to-liberal legislators on this list. And he certainly was by far the most liberal candidate in that GOP primary. But there’s always hope. More precisely, there’s always the prospect that he’ll have to embrace fiscal conservatism because of a lack of revenue. If Christie wants to enforce party discipline, then all of those GOP legislators will be getting A’s in the near future. (Mulshine, Star Ledger)


Morning News Digest: January 21, 2010