Morning News Digest: January 28, 2010

Stile: Christie’s chasing a familiar villain

Chris Christie has found a useful bogeyman — and it wears the union label.  To be more precise, it wears the public employee union label, stitched along the seams of 60 percent polyester, 40 percent cotton-blend dress shirts worn by state workers and entry-level teachers. It can be found in nearly one in every five New Jersey households. In his whirlwind first week, Christie has turned the once-venerable public employee unions – the Communications Workers of America (state workers), American Federation of State and Municipal Employees (local government workers) and the New Jersey Education Association (teachers) into a Cyclops lurching across the political landscape, devouring taxpayer cash and crushing anyone in its path. It is responsible for New Jersey’s budget crisis and rising property taxes. Its political influence is out of control. In Christie’s view, it must be slain. (Stile, The Record)

Democratic State Committee picks Wisniewski to chair party

Acknowledging body slam bruises from the last couple of elections, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) at the Forsgate Country Club in Jamesburg accepted the unanimous support from members of the State Democratic Committee to be the party’s next statewide chairman. “In my 14 years as an assemblyman, the unease in the public right now is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Wisniewski, who tonight officially became the new forward line face of a party that claims more registered members than the GOP, but just saw Gov. Chris Christie unseat Jon Corzine. That relatively fresh pain was compounded by last week’s Scott Brown stomping of a Massachusetts Democrat trying to keep the late Edward Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat in party hands, in a litmus test election cast against the backdrop of President Barack Obama’s herky jerky efforts to move healthcare reform. The lead factory worker’s son from Sayreville turned attorney admitted that right now, the public “questions whether we get what they’re feeling. Thjey see healthcare reform and asset monetization and they see more government, more costs, and more rules.” Unafraid to soul search as Adlai Stevenson advised in the 1950s – and those were Wisniewski’s words – the new party chairman said, “I’m a Democrat because I believe that government must supply a safety net.” The crowd here in a tucked away basement corner of this country club included party chairs and new party leadership, among them Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange), Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen), and Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-Union), the departing party chairman who nominated Wisniewski to succeed him. As Wisniewski’s speech turned inward, probing and inquistive in a vowed quest for new ways of outreach, research and fundraising, Sweeney, and the seldom podium soul searching Cryan, scrappy in his day as a tireless chairman who tonight received two standing ovations for his work, chatted audibly. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Kean says bi-partisan cooperation is crucial

Although the legislature remains firmly in Democratic control, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) expects that the new political landscape ushered in by Republican Gov. Christopher Christie’s election will make the Democratic legislative leadership more receptive to Republican ideas. “We’ve reached across the aisle to find solutions… And I anticipate going forward that many of the solutions we offered that were ignored by Jon Corzine and his predecessors will be successful,” said Kean in an interview at his Westfield legislative office. In some cases, bipartisanship isn’t even needed. In his first day in office, Christie signed an executive order mandating the creation of a “user friendly” Web site to track spending on a quarterly basis (The web site put up by Gov. Corzine during his last week in office, Kean said, was a “mockery” that “couldn’t even be navigated.”) It enacted the main proposals the Transparency in Government Act championed by Kean and state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville) for a year. But Kean also thinks that the problems facing the state – the economy, the tax burden, the pension problems – have reached such a critical mass that the Democratic controlled legislature and the governor will, by necessity, work together. The bipartisan rhetoric on inauguration day – when Christie invited Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) to share the stage with him – was genuine, Kean said. “It was just a good, positive feel. You sensed, not only in the church and in the War Memorial, but in the halls of Trenton, an excitement, optimism, an energy that hadn’t existed in a long, long time.” But that feeling, at least among some Democrats, was sullied when Christie signed an executive order holding unions to the same pay-to-play standards as corporations – a move that would significantly undercut Democratic fundraising, and one the public workers unions and key Democrats are expected to challenge it in court. “I’ve been fighting for those types of reforms for years. It’s the exact right direction to go,” said Kean. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. Democrats select Assemblyman John Wisniewski as state party chairman

Back on their heels after losing the governor’s office for the first time in eight years, state Democrats tonight chose a new leader to guide the party. Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) was elected chairman of the Democratic State Committee, a role requiring fundraising, grassroots organizing and vocal opposition to Republican Gov. Chris Christie. He was unanimously selected by committee members to serve a two-year term. “We will have our philosophical differences with Governor Christie and his party, but they are going to be differences of principle, not of partisanship,” Wisniewski said in an interview. “Where we think he’s wrong, where we think he’s mistaken in his priorities, we won’t hesitate to let him know.” Wisniewski, 47, of Sayreville, has served in the Assembly since 1996 and chairs its transportation committee. He replaces Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union), who declined to seek another term heading the state party after Gov. Jon Corzine lost his re-election bid in November. “We are a party in transition,” Cryan said. “We need to tighten up our message and our grassroots politics, and I think John Wisniewski’s going to do a great job at that. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) told the crowd of more than 100 Democrats that Christie’s election was not a death blow and they can recapture the governor’s office. “This didn’t turn red, this state,” he said, adding Wisniewski is up to the challenge. “This is still a Democratic state … we’re going to get this state back in four years.” Democrats hold both of New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seats and eight of its 13 congressional seats. They also control both houses of the state Legislature, with a 23-17 majority in the Senate and 47-33 in the Assembly. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie nominates health commissioner, school construction chief

Gov. Chris Christie continued to expand the management team for his 8-day-old administration today by nominating an insurance company’s medical director to lead the state Health Department and a federal prosecutor to run the controversial Schools Development Authority. As he introduced Marc Larkins as the schools authority’s chief executive officer, Christie also declared he’s ended the agency’s free-spending days. The governor said that on Tuesday he stopped the authority from making a $1.2 million payment for a $28.7 million high school in Burlington City that already was nearly $17 million over budget. He nullified the authority’s approval by vetoing the minutes of the Jan. 6 meeting when the change order was approved. “You could practically build another school for what they are over budget,’’ Christie said incredulously yesterday. “This is exactly why the Schools Development Authority has continued to run through billions of dollars of taxpayer money — because of this kind of irresponsibility.’’ Christie said he intended to maintain the authority that members of his transition team said in a report last week will be insolvent by March. “The question is how it operates going forward,’’ he said. Christie, who was Larkins’ boss at the U.S. attorney’s office, said he hired the 35-year-old Irvington resident again for his “compassion and accountability. … He will bring extraordinary focus and personal experience to this position.’’ The governor said he picked Poonam Alaigh, 45, of Warren Township, to lead the state Department of Health and Senior Services because of her versatile experience as a physician and as manager in the health care and pharmaceutical industries. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, the largest health insurer in the state, hired Alaigh 10 months ago as its executive medical director for Quality and Care Management. She previously had been the medical director for the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. She is also a practicing physician, specializing in vascular diseases. Alaigh told reporters at a Statehouse press conference yesterday her first priority is to help the governor “balance the budget,” which Christie has said is hobbled by a $1.3 billion deficit. But the economic pressure on the Health Department is always intense, particularly from the troubled hospital industry, hobbled in recent years by bankruptcies and closures and dependent on government subsidies to treat uninsured, elderly and poor people. (Livio, Star Ledger)

N.J. environmental groups urge Gov. Christie to expand use of renewable energy

Several environmental groups urged Gov. Chris Christie today to expand New Jersey’s use of “renewable energy,” such as windmills and solar panels, calling his transition team’s report on energy “troubling.” Environment New Jersey, the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club and the Eastern Environmental Law Center condemned a transition team recommendation last week to switch the Office of Clean Energy from control by the Board of Public Utilities to the Economic Development Authority. The transition team questioned whether the program’s $269 million annual budget, derived from surcharges on ratepayers, is “being used most effectively.” “When you are building any market, like solar and wind, you want stability. This is the program that built the solar market in New Jersey, and the more we change the program, the less confidence the market will have in it,” said Matt Elliott of Environment New Jersey. The program finances energy efficiency improvements in businesses and homes, including installation of solar panels, and is credited with building alternative energy markets in a state that gets less than 3 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Environmentalists criticized former Gov. Jon Corzine for taking more than $30 million from the fund for general government use, and today said they fear Christie will do the same. (Murray, Star Ledger)

Atlantic City’s government has widespread mismanagement, N.J. report finds

A new state report has found widespread waste in Atlantic City’s City Hall, from personal use of city-owned cars to unneeded patronage jobs. The report is the latest blow to the city of 40,000, which has a long history of political corruption. “It is completely unacceptable that when our state is facing a gaping budget deficit and New Jerseyans are the highest taxed in the nation, Atlantic City is being reckless with taxpayer dollars,” Gov. Chris Christie said in a statement. State Comptroller Matthew Boxer says New Jersey law states city council members in a community the size of Atlantic City should not have aides. Yet there are 11 aides for the nine city council members. The audit says the aides collect more than $480,000 a year and do little work. One aide told auditors her only consistent duty was to read newspaper obituaries and find people from her councilmember’s ward who had died so their families could be send letter of condolence. In a response to the audit, City Council President William Marsh says he’s tightening procedures for the aides but not doing away with them. City officials say the positions are less wasteful than they used to be: In the past, the aides could stay on as typists even when their councilmembers left office. The audit also found that eight of the city’s nine council members were issued city-owned cars, with no requirement that they be used only for city business. The audit recommended that the council members be reimbursed for using their personal vehicles, rather than getting city-issued ones. The state report also found the city missed out on as much as $9 million in revenue by failing to foreclose on some properties that were eligible. The city business administrator said in a response that was included with the audit that the city is working on that issue. (AP)

Stile: Christie’s chasing a familiar villain

Chris Christie has found a useful bogeyman — and it wears the union label. To be more precise, it wears the public employee union label, stitched along the seams of 60 percent polyester, 40 percent cotton-blend dress shirts worn by state workers and entry-level teachers. It can be found in nearly one in every five New Jersey households. In his whirlwind first week, Christie has turned the once-venerable public employee unions – the Communications Workers of America (state workers), American Federation of State and Municipal Employees (local government workers) and the New Jersey Education Association (teachers) into a Cyclops lurching across the political landscape, devouring taxpayer cash and crushing anyone in its path. It is responsible for New Jersey’s budget crisis and rising property taxes. Its political influence is out of control. In Christie’s view, it must be slain. The public employee bogeyman is a frequent guest at Christie’s news conferences. It doesn’t take much to goad Christie into singling him out, as he did Wednesday when asked about last week’s executive order expanding New Jersey’s pay-to-play ban on contributions to include labor groups. Christie preempted my windy, technical question with a cut-to-the-chase reply. He was licking his chops. “Does it apply to the New Jersey Education Association, is that what you are asking?” he said. “Yes, in our view, it applies to the New Jersey Education Association. Next question.” There is reason to be skeptical — past anti-union jihads have yielded minor reforms. The unions’ political power among incumbent legislators, whose careers have been bankrolled by union largess, remains a daunting hurdle. Christie may very well wrest concessions from labor, but I’m betting that they’ll be small bore, in the Corzine-range. Christie will simply do a better job of trumpeting them from the bully pulpit. They’ll seem more significant. But as stagecraft goes, the out-of-the-gate attack is a smart move. Christie is well aware that the anti-incumbent fervor that fueled his victory over Gov. Jon Corzine could easily engulf his new administration. So why not deflect some of that anger on the parasitic culprit that everybody loves to hate? It’s music that a restive electorate wants to hear right now — last week’s Quinnipiac University poll found overwhelming public support for layoffs, furloughs and wage freezes of state workers. And 65 percent say they expect Christie to get tough on the unions that represent them. “We saw this in the campaign,” said Patrick Murray, a political scientist at Monmouth University and a pollster. “You need some enemy of the middle class and as a Republican you are not going to make it those who generate wealth. So you have to find somebody else.” (Stile, The Record)

Mulshine: A couple of good moves from Christie

I’ve been tough on our new governor for some appointments that are a bit too liberal for my tastes. But Chris Christie’s doing one thing right. He’s ticked off the Sierra Club. Check this press release in which the tree-huggers get their knickers in a twist over Christie’s transition team’s report on the environment: “They are supporting more nuclear power plants, the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line, and raiding the Clean Energy Fund.” Good for Christie and Co. We need all that and more in New Jersey if this state is ever to regain its economic competitiveness: And note the hypocrisy. The tree-huggers claim to support “clean energy” but they oppose the cleanest energy source of them all, nuclear power. If they truly believed manmade emissions of carbon threatened the planet then they’d support the single most productive means of producing energy without CO-2 emissions. By the way, they also oppose the second most productive means of doing so: hydroelectric power. So give Christie credit for this one. And give him credit for this one as well. The Governor announced today he’s vetoing a $1.267 million change order for one of those Abbott District school projects that’s already almost $20 million over budget. “Including the vetoed amount, change orders for construction of a new addition to the Burlington City High School in the Burlington School District total $18.825 million. The original contract price was $28,723,000, meaning that the project has now increased by 66 percent to $47,548,791, according to figures provided by the SDA.” The SDA is the Schools Development Authority, an agency created in response to the blatantly unconstitutional Abbott decision of the state Supreme Court. So far the state has borrowed more than $7 billion without voter approval – in direct violation of the state Constitution’s debt-limitation clause – to fund the construction of those schools in districts run largely by corrupt Democratic machines. (Mulshine, Star Ledger)

Mulshine: Then Lisa would have real authority to shut the state parks…

Wally Edge at is speculating that former New Jersey environmental commissioner Lisa Jackson might run for governor in 2013. Jackson, who is now holds the same post on the national level, set some sort of a new low for environmentalists of any stripe when she acted as a stooge for Jon Corzine in his float a trial balloon that immediately blew up in his face – a blatantly bogus threat to shut the state parks in 2008. Everyone from environmentalists to right-wingers saw through the charade immediately. Shutting the parks for the summer tourists would have saved only a few million dollars. Meanwhile Corzine was keeping a $146 million slush fund for the cities in the budget. Another problem for the Democratic apparatchik: By 2013 the global-warming fad will have ended yet the U.S. will still be stuck with her decision to label carbon-dioxide a pollutant – even though she, you and I exhale it every second we’re alive. Here’s a column I wrote at the time of the telephone press conference during which this tree-hugger threatened to fence off all the tree. I hope to be able to bring this up again and again if the Democrats are foolish enough to follow through on this. The Brendan Byrne Forest is about to become part of the Jon Corzine No-Trespassing Zone. I learned that on Tuesday during a telephone press conference with Lisa Jackson, the state’s environmental protection commissioner. The point of the chat was to inform journalists about the closing of a number of state forests and parks. Among them is the former Lebanon State Forest, which in 2002 was renamed in honor of the Democratic ex-governor. The current Democratic governor wants to shut it as part of what he claims to be an austerity budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But as is usually the case with Democrats, the austerity extends mainly to Republican areas. Still in the budget is $146 million for the so-called “distressed cities” fund, a slush fund from which Democratic mayors may draw without any regulations or application forms. Tom Neff of the Senate Republicans told me he has come up empty after filing requests to see any criteria whatsoever for the Democrats’ process of handing out that pork to their pals. (Mulshine, Star Ledger)

Morning News Digest: January 28, 2010