Morning News Digest: January 26, 2010

Bill Pascrell fed up with ‘arrogant’ Democrats The same congressman who whacked “The Sopranos” is now taking on the House

Bill Pascrell fed up with ‘arrogant’ Democrats

The same congressman who whacked “The Sopranos” is now taking on the House leadership for butchering the health care debate.  Rep. Bill Pascrell has called fellow Democrats “arrogant” and referred to a key party talking point as “BS.” He slammed deals cut by leadership and special interests and said, “We’re not going to accept that any longer.”   Agitated and unfiltered, Pascrell has become the guy who’s not afraid to go public with what many rank-and-file House Democrats have been saying behind closed doors.

Christie and Sweeney find common starting point on public employee pension reform

With the news coming out of the Democratic caucus today that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) wants to revisit reforms proposed by the 2006 bipartisan special session to overhaul the current public employee pension and benefits system, Gov. Chris Christie quickly issued a release praising Sweeney. “Senate President Sweeney is sending a clear signal that results matter and that bipartisan action is critical to reforming a broken pension and benefits system,” the governor said. “I applaud the Senate leadership’s decision to complete the sweeping overhaul of the public employee pension and benefits system that was first proposed over three years ago. The only way to ease New Jersey’s fiscal pain and close our budget gap is by working together to fundamentally change the way government operates and today’s move is a very positive first step.” According to the Senate Majority Office, the bipartisan, bicameral committee four years ago made 41 specific recommendations to ensure the pension and benefits system’s long-term viability for career state employees. The legislature enacted 15 recommendations, while other reforms were achieved through collective bargaining. “The Senate must be prepared to tackle the unfinished business of the joint session,” said Sweeney. “Three years after the special session ended, applying its bipartisan recommendations is more important than ever.” Sweeney and leadership want to examine rolling-back a “9% increase legislatively enacted in 2001 that resulted in a significant increase in the pension fund’s unfunded liability, increasing the number of ‘high salary’ years used to calculate pension benefits from the average of three years to the average of at least five years, requiring all part-time employees to enroll into a defined contribution plan instead of the pension system and allowing all current non-vested public employees to opt into a defined contribution retirement plan.” (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Wilson defends Norcross’s 5th District ascent

Just days after Republican Scott Brown notched an improbable victory in Massachusetts by declaring that the U.S. Senate seat he sought did not belong to the late Teddy Kennedy, newly sworn-in Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson (D-Camden) used similar language in defending Donald Norcross’s move up to claim the 5th District seat vacated by Camden Mayor Dana Redd. “I don’t think anybody can claim any seat,” said Wilson, when asked about the South Jersey Democratic Organization’s decision to back labor leader Donald Norcross, brother of Democratic Party power broker George Norcross III, as the replacement for Redd, in a district dominated by the City of Camden, where over half the residents are black. “If you give the 5th District senate seat to an African American, you’re eliminating Latinos and everyone else,” Wilson said. “I think what you’re getting here now with this team is balance, as you have a Latino (Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden), an African American (Wilson), and a European American (Norcross). The bottom line is that senate seat should go to a person who wants the job.” Sworn into office today, Wilson, who retired as a lieutenant in 1995 from the Camden Police Department after 26 years, described the last couple of months as a whirlwind. He, Norcross and Fuentes are the brand new replacement trio for Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts (D-Camden), who retired last year; Redd, who became mayor of Camden in a force-out of Gwendolyn Faison on the occasion of Roberts’s impending retirement; and former Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden), dumped by the organization. “It’s a strange situation for me,” said Wilson. “I’m very surprised I was selected, but very happy. It was a joyous mood at my swearing-in today, where I was joined by 50-odd people from Camden, including Mayor Redd.” Wilson said he hasn’t yet formally received his committee assignments, but hopes to land veterans affairs and public safety. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

After OLS testimony, Corzine and Christie stick to their guns on deficit

Both Gov. Christopher Christie and former Gov. Jon Corzine said that today’s testimony by an Office of Legislative Services (OLS) budget officer “confirmed” their side of the spat over just how large a deficit the state faces come June 30. The officer, David J. Rosen, said it was “not unreasonable” to predict that the state would be more than $1 billion in the red by June. “The non-partisan Office of Legislative Services today confirmed what we’ve been saying all along – New Jersey is confronting a budget deficit of approximately $1.3 billion for the balance of the fiscal year. There are no phantom surpluses or face-saving magic numbers to fix the mess we have inherited. Now is the time to move forward and focus on tackling this very real problem head on,” said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak. But Corzine spokesman Josh Zeitz said the testimony actually vindicated the outgoing governor, who last week responded angrily to Christie’s claim that he hid a $1.3 billion deficit from the new administration. Zeitz told the Star-Ledger last week that Corzine had, in fact, left Christie a $496 million surplus. “Today, OLS confirmed what we already knew: no one will really be able to predict revenue for the remainder of the year until April’s income tax returns come in. That is why OLS has not issued its own projections,” he said. “To suggest that Dr. Rosen independently confirmed Gov. Christie’s revenue projections is a clear misreading of his testimony. Dr. Rosen drew a clear distinction between the operating budget, which is in surplus, and long-term projections, which remain a matter of pure conjecture. We all want to give the administration time to get on its feet. But it’s important that they stop misrepresenting the current balance sheet, which is very much in the black because of Jon Corzine’s record of fiscal responsibility. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. Senate to take up pension reforms dropped by Corzine administration

The Senate will take up part of a pension reform package abandoned during the Corzine administration that would cut benefits for future state hires, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Monday. Sweeney said the measures will shore up the pension system for all future workers. “If we don’t do something to rectify the pension problems, it’s going to go bankrupt,” he said. “We have an obligation to the people that work for this state that we ensure their pensions.” The proposed changes include repealing a 9 percent increase in benefits put in place in 2001, increasing from three to five the number of years of salary factored into the pension, banning part-time workers from the pension plan and switch to a defined contribution plan, and allowing non-vested public employees to switch out of the pension system and into a defined contribution plan, or opt out completely. Sweeney called the 9 percent increase the “single most irresponsible act that took place to put our pensions in jeopardy.” Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) blamed former Gov. Jon Corzine for not allowing these items to go through in 2008. “We received a lot of push-back from the administration,” she said. “Our efforts were severely constrained. We were able to push through some reforms, but not nearly enough.” Sweeney also said he would support a constitutional amendment to require the state to fully fund the pension plan. The pension plan contributions have been a favorite place to fix year-end budget gaps. Hetty Rosenstein, director of the Communications Workers of America, which represents 55,000 state and local workers, said it was essential to fully fund the pension plan, and she needed to study the situation more closely. “I think we need to get much more information regard to what the condition of the plan is, not to be rash and address pension issues in a careful, a very, very careful, cautious way,” she said. (Fleisher, The Record)

Gov. Christie’s projected $1.3B N.J. budget shortfall is reasonable, analyst says

After a week of Gov. Chris Christie and former Gov. Jon Corzine sniping over the health of New Jersey’s budget, a nonpartisan legislative office today said Christie’s $1.3 billion projected revenue shortfall is reasonable. Through the end of the year, the state is looking at a $2 billion deficit from revenue and spending — though April’s income tax collections could swing the results wildly in either direction, said David Rosen, the budget and finance officer for the Office of Legislative Services, which works for the governor and Legislature. Still, Rosen said that while he has not seen exact figures, Christie’s estimate of a $1.3 billion revenue shortfall on the $29 billion budget is possible, as is a potential need for more than $668 million in extra spending. “It’s not an unreasonable number to have on the table for an estimate,” Rosen said at an Assembly Budget Committee hearing when asked about Christie’s figures. Christie last week blasted former governor Jon Corzine for leaving a “parting gift” of an undisclosed $1.3 billion budget gap, while a Corzine spokesman said the administration had, in fact, exited with a balanced budget and a $496 million surplus. Rosen said today the two were arguing over different sets of numbers. “If we’re not comparing apples and oranges, it’s Macintosh versus Granny Smith, at least,” he said. Corzine’s calculations included patches that Christie may not want to use. Rosen said although Corzine’s declaration of a surplus could be right, the numbers only matter at the end of the year when the budget is required by law to be balanced. Rhetoric on both sides was toned down today compared with last week. The governor said Rosen’s testimony validates his administration’s budget projections, but he did not dwell on the topic. “That should put that conversation to rest,” Christie said. Josh Zeitz, a spokesman for Corzine, acknowledged the men were using different figures, but he disputed Christie’s characterization of Corzine as a poor budget steward. “It’s not like one of these guys is right and one of these guys is wrong,” Zeitz said. “If they go after Jon Corzine’s character, we’re going to respond.” Current and projected tax collection numbers guide spending decisions by the Legislature and governor. Before leaving office, Corzine had proposed $948 million in cuts and implemented some of them. Christie said he plans to identify more than $1 billion in cuts to the current budget within the next week to 10 days and implement some by executive action while asking the Legislature to act on others. (Fleisher/Heininger, Star Ledger)

N.J. Gov. Christie nominates commissioners for community affairs, labor

Gov. Chris Christie filled two more seats in his cabinet today, including nominating another former prosecutor to the key post of community affairs commissioner. Nominee Lori Grifa pledged tighter controls on state aid to New Jersey’s 566 municipalities, but also to be “the governor’s ambassador” to local officials in need. She said part of the blame for waste and confusion lies at the state level because internal auditing at the Department of Community Affairs has been “cut down to the bone.” “It is unfortunate that hardly a month goes by that we don’t read about something that has happened someplace in this great state that probably shouldn’t have. These things don’t necessarily happen in a vacuum,” Grifa said. “Clearly, if you are a student of the size of the budget at the DCA, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree that there needs to be accountability and some standards for the way money’s being awarded and being spent.” Christie — who plans to revoke extra aid for certain cities and is considering cuts to other forms of municipal aid — said setting those standards is the “most compelling reason” for Grifa’s selection. He said “tens of millions” of state and federal dollars are funneled through DCA each year. “The public needs to know, especially in these very difficult economic times, that every penny of public money that’s being spent … the way it was intended to be spent,” Christie said during a morning news conference. “I know she will impose that kind of discipline.” The governor also said he would nominate Sussex County Freeholder Hal Wirths, a small business owner he called “a great voice” on the economy and state budget, as labor commissioner. Grifa, an attorney at Wolff & Samson, previously served as chief of staff to former Attorney General David Samson and as an assistant district attorney in New York. A Montclair resident, she is the latest in a line of ex-prosecutors chosen by Christie, the former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, for his administration. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

NJ Senate Democrats promise pension reforms

Democrats in the New Jersey Senate are promising to do what they were unable to accomplish four years ago: overhaul the ailing state pension system. The reforms include rolling back a 9 percent pension benefit increase the Legislature enacted in 2001 and requiring part-time workers to enroll in a plan other than the state pension system. The pension system is underfunded by about $34 billion and in danger of becoming insolvent unless fixes are made. Any reforms would affect future employees, not those already in the system. “Unless we take action now, New Jersey’s pension system will implode leaving thousands of rank and file workers penniless in retirement,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. Public employee unions opposed many of the changes that were proposed following a joint legislative session on property taxes in 2006. Fifteen of the committee’s 41 recommendations were subsequently enacted, and a few reforms were realized through collective bargaining. Others were stalled by the administration of Gov. Jon Corzine, who sought to negotiate the changes during contract talks with the unions. However, Sweeney and other Democratic leaders in the Senate on Monday called the pension reform effort “unfinished” and said it would be a priority during the new legislative session. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver previously identified pension reforms as a legislative priority.Republican leaders also praised the idea. That drew praise from Gov. Chris Christie, who also has called for pension reforms and has criticized pension-padding and other abuses. “Senate President Sweeney is sending a clear signal that results matter and that bipartisan action is critical to reforming a broken pension and benefits system,” Christie said in a statement. “I applaud the Senate leadership’s decision to complete the sweeping overhaul of the public employee pension and benefits system.” Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono said one of the biggest drains on the system was the 9 percent pension benefits increase granted in 2001 by changing the formula used to calculate workers’ pension benefits. Though former Gov. Jon Corzine increased state workers’ retirement age to 62, the benefits’ calculation was not revised. Senators in both parties said the prior reform effort was hamstrung by Corzine. Other changes that will be brought up again include allowing employees to opt out of the pension system and requiring the state to make its annual payment to the pension fund. The state chronically shorts the fund, including $900 million in skipped payments this year. (Delli Santi, AP)

N.J. businesses could face higher taxes

Governor Christie says he’ll let a tax hike on businesses take effect if the federal government doesn’t help the state replenish the unemployment fund. Employers could see an increase of up to $1,000 per employee in their unemployment tax starting July 1 unless the fund is infused with state or federal money. The fund helps pay unemployment benefits. The increase is triggered by a growing shortfall in the Unemployment Insurance Fund. Business taxes are increased by law when the fund’s balance dips below a certain level as measured every March. Christie says the fund will be $1.6 billion in debt by March. “That’s not my choice, what I would like to have happen,” Christie said Monday. “But on the other hand, we can’t continue to run that kind of debt.” The newly sworn-in Republican governor said his administration will ask the federal government to forgive the debt, but he said the state can’t afford to pump money into the fund to stop the tax increase. New Jersey faces a deficit of more than $9 billion for the 2011 budget year, which begins in July. Unemployment in New Jersey climbed to a 33-year high of 10.1 percent in December — the first time since October 2006 that the Garden State’s jobless rate eclipsed the national average of 10 percent. Total employment in New Jersey fell to 3,910,400 in December, with losses in both the public and private sectors. Manufacturing, construction and financial activities recorded the largest over-the-month private sector job losses and public sector employment was down by 1,200 over the month before. Christie said that over $3.6 billion has been raided from the fund over the past decade. David Socolow, the Labor Commissioner under Corzine, also recommended allowing the fund to replenish before he left his office this month. Other states are in similar positions. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 27 owe the federal government money for the unemployment benefits; California is the highest at $6.7 billion, and New York and Pennsylvania have each borrowed more than $2 billion. Democratic Assemblyman Lou Greenwald said an unemployment tax increase would hurt businesses already battered by the tough economy. (AP)

Freshman GOP assemblyman begins work in Trenton

Domenick DiCicco laughs robustly when asked whether he is related to veteran Philadelphia Councilman Frank DiCicco. “I get asked that all the time,” the political novice says, shaking his head no and taking a sip of coffee at a Gloucester County diner. That’s because the newly seated New Jersey assemblyman is not as well-known. But DiCicco’s easy style and quick wit are apt to fix that. “I’m nuts,” he quips in answer to why he got into politics. DiCicco and Gov. Christie share the distinction of being the only Republicans in at least a decade to capture government posts held by Democrats. That’s no small feat in a state where registered Democrats have long outnumbered Republicans. DiCicco, a moderate from Washington Township, is one of 33 Republicans in the 80-member Assembly. The Center City lawyer, who lifts weights and reads several books at a time, said his victory in November reflected voter discontent over high property taxes and runaway government spending. Insisting he’s “no wallflower,” he said he intended to speak out and support Christie’s efforts to “fix the state.” Officially, DiCicco, who turned 47 yesterday, begins his work in Trenton today when he attends a budget committee hearing. DiCicco and incumbent Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, a Democrat, represent the Fourth District, which covers parts of Gloucester and Camden Counties. Both counties are Democratic strongholds. The two men are the only Assembly members to split a district’s party ticket, and they plan to maintain separate offices in Washington Township. DiCicco and Moriarty traded barbs during the campaign, one of the most-watched in the state. But DiCicco said the two shook hands during the swearing in last week, and he hopes to work cordially with Moriarty so they can accomplish state business. Moriarty seconded the sentiment. “I’ll work with anyone committed to moving the state forward,” he said. “I don’t care what side they’re on.” But aside from shaking hands, the two haven’t spoken since the campaign. The assemblymen’s wives were friends about 10 years ago when their children were Brownies, both men said, and DiCicco once donated $250 to one of Moriarty’s campaigns. DiCicco trailed Moriarty by about 600 votes in the Assembly race. He won the seat vacated by Sandra Love of Laurel Springs when she decided against seeking another term. (Hefler, Inquirer)

Stile: Let’s say for argument’s sake €” and its an argument that Bergen Democrats privately had the past few weeks €” that County Executive Dennis McNerney is too tainted by his ties to convicted party Boss Joe Ferriero.

Let’s say for argument’s sake — and it’s an argument that Bergen Democrats privately have had the past few weeks — that County Executive Dennis McNerney is too tainted by his ties to convicted party boss Joe Ferriero.  For the good of the party, he should pull the plug on his bid for a third term. Who, then, in Bergen County could plausibly replace him as a Ferriero-free candidate? I’ll make it easy: No one. What other candidate has McNerney’s name recognition, his easy charm at senior citizen centers? No one. And in what political pasture could they put McNerney if, for some miraculous reason, he agreed to step aside? Governor Christie is not hiring many Democrats. Those well-paying federal patronage jobs — assistant director to the director of the Northeast region council of some such bureaucracy — have already been filled in Obama Year One. It’s not going to happen. The fact is McNerney is in it for keeps, despite the panic that has engulfed the Democratic Party in New Jersey after Republican Christie’s victory and nationally after a win by Republican Massachusetts Senator-elect Scott Brown. Party officials have come to terms that the future of the Ferriero-built machine is riding on McNerney — not Bergen County Sherriff Leo McGuire, who is also up for reelection, or County Surrogate Mike Dressler. Both names were bandied around as possible replacements. Besides, neither candidate could easily step from under the Ferriero cloud — both their careers flourished under the steady grip of Ferriero’s tutelage (Dressler to a lesser degree; he was first elected in 1996 before Ferrerio became party chairman.) Officials realized in recent weeks that the Ferriero-free Democrats can only be found in border states. “I’m running straight down the line this election,” McNerney said Monday. “I know that some people were concerned, that there was a void after Christie’s election and Scott Brown, but we are going forward.” McNerney says he is not too worried about the Ferriero relationship and he has some reason to be confident. Voters rarely make corruption a top concern when choosing elected officials, unless, the candidate is indicted or under investigation. Voters assume that the foul air around politicians is like the same foul air drifting from the refineries — it’s just an unpleasant, ugly fact of Jersey life. McNerney’s 2002 election was the crowning achievement of Ferriero’s crusade, but he was never ensnared in the investigations. McNerney noted that Ferriero’s work on a secret grant-writing firm, which led to his conviction, occurred before he took office. A bigger threat to McNerney in this environment is that he is simply an incumbent soon to face a hostile, anti-establishment electorate that ruined Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s bid for a second term. (Stile, The Record)

Mulshine: N.J. toll scheme is dead; long live the toll scheme?

For normal people, the strongest urge is the urge to breathe. For politicians, however, I suspect the strongest urge is the urge to collect tolls. For most of human history, that urge was held back by the practical problems associated with toll collection. But then some genius invented the transponder. Ever since, politicians of both parties all over America have been looking at traffic and thinking the same thought: “If only every car had one, we could make a fortune.” Or as a guy from Staten Island put it: “With today’s technology, we do not need to build a single additional toll booth in America; sensors and transponders can do the work. With technology, we can even adjust the prices on a road regularly to ensure that it never becomes congested.” That guy is James Simpson, and until recently he was the second-most highly placed advocate of tolls in America. The first was a woman from Texas named Mary Peters. She was the secretary of transportation in the Bush administration. Simpson served under her as the head of the Federal Transit Administration. Peters is now a consultant for a private toll-road company that is trying to get the Texas legislature to accept a scheme to impose tolls on drivers all over Texas. Texas drivers feel the same way about her toll scheme that Jersey drivers felt about our prior governor’s toll scheme. So that’s where Peters went. But where did Simpson go? Across those overpriced toll bridges from Staten Island to New Jersey, that’s where. Simpson is Gov. Chris Christie’s nominee to be transportation commissioner. That choice raised eyebrows among advocates for the driving public. Unfortunately, there aren’t many such advocates and most are unpaid. Meanwhile, the forces behind tolls are many and well-compensated. From the international toll-road companies to the highway-construction contractors, there’s a lot of money and muscle behind tolls. At his introductory press conference, Simpson endorsed the idea of “public-private partnerships.” In the world of toll-road advocates, that term describes the sort of deal now in effect in states such as Indiana. A private firm contracts with the government to run a toll road and then sweetens the deal with a big up-front payment of billions against future toll revenues. That, of course, was essentially what Jon Corzine tried to do, only with a quasi-public entity doing the dirty work. So it was not surprising that Simpson supported the Corzine plan when he traveled to Trenton in 2008, stating, “I want to congratulate Governor Corzine for having the courage to try to solve the financing puzzle.” What’s surprising is that the guy who beat Corzine picked Simpson to head Transportation. (Mulshine, Star Ledger)

Editorial: Gov. Chris Christie’s spending cuts – First step, a thorough exam

How many state workers does it take to screw in a light bulb? That’s basically the question that Gov. Chris Christie will have to answer when he starts redlining state spending to close a budget gap that is $8 billion or $9.3 billion, depending on who is estimating. (When did math become Democratic or Republican, anyway?) But rather than taking the easy way out with one-time budget gimmicks or across-the-board cuts — cop-outs that New Jersey has used in previous crises — Christie has promised to make the tough, detailed decisions that politicians have been postponing for years. If he does, he can rewrite the owner’s manual for New Jersey. To that end, the governor’s transition team has released 19 reports that review all state departments, agencies and authorities, from Agriculture to Treasury. In those hundreds of pages are scores of recommendations on where to apply tourniquets to stop the bleeding. The report, for example, looks at the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority’s $38 million loss last year and its lousy prospects for profit and insists “the entire mission, structure and even the very existence of the NJSEA be questioned.” In an even more daring move, the education report broaches the possibility of freezing salaries for all public employees in 2011, including teachers. That’s courageous stuff. Whacking indiscriminately is easy. It’s the go-to tool for governors. Christie could tell department heads to slice a certain percentage from agency bottom lines, then claim he has put the state on the road to recovery. But that would be false. It would cripple worthwhile programs while allowing wasteful ones to keep sputtering along, wasting just a little less. Instead, Christie should answer the big questions: How many state workers does New Jersey need? Which departments should stay? Which should go? What services should remain, which should be dismantled and which, if any, should be enhanced? (Star Ledger) Morning News Digest: January 26, 2010