This Week in New Jersey

Chris Christie says he would support Initiative & Referendum, and appears prepared to reluctantly support a tax increase on businesses to fund unemployment benefits — unless the federal government jumps in to help.  Christie and former Gov. Jon Corzine traded barbs over the size of the deficit: Christie says its $1.3 billion and Corzine insists he left the state with a $496 million surplus. The tie-breaker, Office of Legislative Services budget officer David Rosen says it was “not unreasonable” to predict a billion dollar deficit by June. 

Senate President Steve Sweeney said he will revisit proposals to reform public employee pensions and benefits, prompting Christie to praise the most powerful Democratic official in the state. “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. 

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. thinks New Jersey has entered into a new era of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.

The Assembly Democratic and Republican leadership announced that they will hold a bi-partisan hearing next week to listen to ideas from New Jersey residents on fixing and improving the state.

APPOINTMENTS
: Christie has nominated Dr. Poonam Alaigh as his Commissioner of Health and Senior Services, a move that will likely prompt questions from Senators regarding her ten-month stint as Executive Medical Director at Blue Cross-Blue Shield of New Jersey.  The former pharmaceutical company medical director will also be close questioned on her willingness to approve generic prescription drugs over branded ones.

The appointment of Marc Larkins, the Executive Assistant United States Attorney, to head the troubled state School Development Authority Board, will send some shockwaves through local school districts that have not been exactly held accountable for their spending over the years.  This week, Christie vetoed $1.3 million in change orders for Burlington City High School, which is already about $20 million over budget.

The nomination of Lori Grifa as Community Affairs Commissioner highlights the extraordinary influence David Samson has in the Christie administration.  Grifa was Samson’s chief of staff when he was Attorney General, and she is now a partner at his North Jersey firm, Wolff and Samson. Sussex Freeholder Hal Wirths, who owned a furniture store, is the new Labor Commissioner.  The new Republican governor is keeping former Democratic Assemblyman Doug Fisher as Secretary of Agriculture. Christie knows that means Steve Sweeney owes him a favor. 

CAMPAIGN ‘10: Two-term GOP Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini might run for Congress against 11-term U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone.  Democrat Ed Potosnak, who works for a California Congressman, wants to challenge freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance.  Lacey Township Democratic Municipal Chairman Barry Bendar says freshman U.S. Rep. John Adler has moved to far to the center and that he’ll challenge him in the Democratic primary.  All ten members of the East Orange City Council endorsed Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo for re-election, effectively closing out a primary challenge from East Orange Mayor Robert Bowser.  Trenton City Councilman Gino Melone might be the GOP candidate for Mercer County Clerk against incumbent Paula Sollami-Covello.  Conservative Steve Lonegan thinks Kathleen Donovan is too liberal to be the GOP candidate for Bergen County Executive.  Sussex County Republicans are getting ready for a special election convention to fill Hal Wirths’ freeholder seat.  Burlington County Democrats will not elect a new chair until June.

METAPHOR OF THE WEEK: The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce train to Washington, D.C. left 150 passengers stranded in Trenton, including chamber president Joan Verplanck.  The annual shmoozefest, boycotted by the new governor and harpooned by editorial boards, had a substantial reduction in attendance this year.

SLEEP WELL, BARACK OBAMA:  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Christie told a group of fourth graders from Colts Neck that he would not seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.  This represents a different Christie than the one who announced his candidacy for the State Assembly three months after being sworn in as a Morris County Freeholder, saying that he had accomplished all he could there.

NOBODY BEATS THE WIZ: John Wisniewski, a seven-term Assemblyman from Sayreville, ran unopposed in his bid for Democratic State Chairman.  Democrats re-elected Camden Mayor Dana Redd as Vice Chair, despite a plea by one legislator that she be denied the post because of her opposition to same sex marriage.  Assemblyman Ruben Ramos of Hoboken is the new Treasurer of the state Democrats, and lobbyist Paul Bontempo is a new Democratic National Committeeman.

CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING: Joe Cryan and Dick Codey made lame duck appointments to the 2012 congressional redistricting commission – the State Chairman and the Senate President each get two seats, and the Assembly Speaker gets two.  That means Wisniewski and Steve Sweeney only get one seat each.   Cryan picked veteran Democratic operative Maggie Moran, who spent three years as Corzine’s deputy chief of staff and one managing the governor’s re-election campaign.  He almost filled both seats, but faced pressure between two other candidates: Mark Matzen, a lobbyist who spent 2009 on Corzine’s staff, and Ed Farmer, also a lobbyist and a former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell.  Codey picked Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., a political ally who has an on-again, off-again relationship with the Essex County Democratic organization.  New Jersey is expected to lose one seat after the census.

LEGISLATIVE REDISTRICTING:  Cryan named two of the five Democrats who will draw the new map for the 2011 Senate and Assembly races: himself and State Sen. Paul Sarlo.  Wisniewski will pick the other three.  A guess: Wisniewski will pick himself, Steve Sweeney, and Joe DiVincenzo’s Chief of Staff, Phil Alagia – even though that would mean Democrats enter the room with a team of five white men.  Snarky comment: a future e-mail from Oliver to legislators might say “If you have questions about your new district, please see the Majority Leader.”

LOCAL ELECTIONS:  Former Municipal Court Judge Clifford Minor kicked off his challenge to Newark Mayor Cory Booker this week.  Minor is running on a ticket with John Sharpe James, the son of Booker’s predecessor.  Sharpe James could be released from a federal prison within the month or two and might be around for Newark’s 2010 municipal elections. Don’t forget that James, convicted on corruption charges, has $1.3 million in his campaign war chest. Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone, under indictment for using campaign funds for personal use, is mulling a bid for Mayor of Bayonne.   Irvington Councilman David Lyons is expected to challenge incumbent Wayne Smith for mayor.  In Linden, Council President Robert Bunk is challenging Mayor Richard Gerbounka.  Gerbounka won as an independent four years ago, ousting the venerable John Gregorio.  The field continues to grow in the race for Mayor of Trenton: Mercer County Freeholder Keith Hamilton tossed his hat in the ring.

TIMID JON: In explaining Gov. Jon Corzine’s veto of a bill that would keep school buses on the road for 15 years (the law limits them to 12), spokesman Josh Zeitz said that the ex-governor believes he “should always err on the side of caution.”  That may be the best way to explain Corzine’s career in public office.

FORGIVING PEOPLE: State Sen. Shirley Turner is expected to sign off on the nomination of her 2007 opponent, Robert Martin, to serve as Commissioner of Environmental Protection.

PROTEST: More than 300 people showed up at a Jersey City Council meeting to oppose a tax increase.  Property tax bills were sent out early so that the city could get emergency aid before Corzine left office.  The Jersey City council has hired a law firm to “investigate and report” on the removal of indicted political consultant Joe Cardwell from the Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA).

ATLANTIC CITY:  An audit conducted by State Controller Matthew Boxer revealed rampant and pervasive waste and abuse of tax dollars in Atlantic City.

TRANSPARENCY:  The Christie administration added detailed language about New Jersey’s fiscal developments since November to the state’s offering statement, providing accurate deficit numbers, Transportation Trust Fund revenues, and new information about the Unemployment Compensation Find to potential investors. 

CAMPAIGN FINANCE:  Bob Menendez and Bill Pascrell have introduced legislation to restrict foreign corporations from spending on elections in the United States. Pascrell said the decision creates a loophole in which non-Americans can influence domestic elections by “laundering it through corporations they control.”

ONLY IN NEW JERSEY:  The federal corruption trial of stripper-turned-politician Leora Beldini began this week; prosecutors have a video, and testimony from Solomon Dwek.  James O’Keefe, a conservative activist from Bergen County, was arrested this week on charges that he tried to infiltrate the office of a U.S. Senator from Louisiana in order to shoot undercover video.  Lakewood housing inspector Jeffrey Williamson, a former Assembly candidate, pleaded guilty to taking bribes.

WATCH OUT NEW BRUNSWICK: Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine is on New Brunswick’s back big time after the city towed the car of a young woman who had properly displayed a handicapped parking placard.  What’s bothering Mulshine the most is the reaction of city officials – on New Brunswick spokesman Bill Bray: “He his is un-freaking-believable. I’m on the train to Washington when my phone rings. It’s none other than Bray himself. He wants to know why I didn’t quote him in detail in my column. I tell him there are two reasons: 1. He called back after my deadline even though I had called him hours earlier; 2. He lied to me.”

WATCH OUT PASSAIC: Gannett’s Bob Ingle says “we’ve all been moved to tears by the enormous struggle in Haiti, which was in bad shape before the earthquake. But things need to be kept in perspective. Mayor Alex Blanco of Passaic is collecting money and food and plans to deliver it personally. The Red Cross is asking us to donate money and let the experts see that it gets where it needs to go and leave the traveling to aid workers. If we can afford it, we should. The mayor said his long-term goal is to invest in a new school in Haiti on behalf of the citizens of Passaic. Since Passaic is an Abbott District the people of Passaic don’t even pay for the construction of their own schools.”

IN THE LEGISLATURE:   Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, a Camden City Councilman and former police officer, was sworn in as the new Assemblyman from the fifth district.  He replaces Donald Norcross, who moved up to the Senate after a week in the lower house.

State Sen. Kip Bateman will introduce legislation that will restrict the type and amount of compensation provided to local public employees, as recommended by the State Commission of Investigation.  That includes: establishing standards for local government employment practices; uniform limits on employee leave; elimination of terminal leave; regulation and control of severance, stipends and related payouts, restrictions on the use of compensatory time; and required employee health insurance contributions.

Two Bergen County legislators, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson will reintroduce legislation to increase oversight and control of the troubled Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission amidst questions over the salary of the executive director: $313,000 annually.  Assemblyman Scott Rumana says the state should assume control of the PVSC.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak said a transition report recommending that the state not pursue intrastate Internet wagering of sports betting until federal laws have changed was dangerous.  Lesniak said his law firm is handling a suit to overturn a federal ban on sports betting for free, and said the Christie administration would be irresponsible if they didn’t sign on to the challenge.

State Sen. Sean Kean’s bill to restrict the use of artificial reefs to recreational fishermen will be heard by the Senate Environment Committee on Monday.

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Linda Greenstein said she plans to call a hearing on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent campaign finance ruling.

Newly-elected Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco says he’ll introduce “no-cost legislation” requiring municipalities to provide clearer information about how property owners can appeal an assessment.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck is drafting a bill after a two-year study by the New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals blamed the state’s medical malpractice insurance laws on the anticipated shortfall of physicians over the next decade.

FROM THE EDITORIAL BOARDS: The Star-Ledger backed a gas tax increase, urged congressional Democrats to pass health care reform “with our without Republican help,” advocated “politics free” Super Bowl commercials, and said they won’t shed any tears if the Chamber of Commerce train trip to Washington goes away. 

On the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on New Jersey’s ban on casino and regulated industry money in state political campaigns, the Gloucester County Times says that ” if the state can’t prove that damage will result from erasing industry-specific donation bans, these limits should go. Maybe all industries can be held to strict dollar limits.”

The Courier-Post wants Steve Sweeney to resign his Gloucester County Freeholder seat now, saying his pledge to step down sometime in 2010 isn’t good enough.

The Record  said Chris Christie “made a smart choice” by skipping the Chamber of Commerce train trip.  “He’s staying in Trenton and doing his job. And that makes a deft political statement.”  And The Record blasted Secaucus for promoting a firefighter who caused the town to pay a $4.8 million law suit to a gay couple who said they were harassed by volunteer firefighters.  (Charles Snyder, who was not charged criminally, is the new Superintendent of Public Works.)

The Press of Atlantic City slammed ex-governor Corzine for giving pension-boosting jobs to a few top aides, saying it was not a “graceful exit move.”

The Asbury Park Press said that if implemented, some of the Christie transition team’s plans regarding horse racing could result in the sport’s demise and the closure of the farms that support the industry, and that the governor “should instruct staff to go back to the starting gate in assessing horse-racing’s future.”

The Home News Tribune wants the Legislature to repeal the law they just passed that stops New Brunswick from holding another referendum to change the way they elect their City Council.  That’s the bill Corzine vetoed before he signed it.

The Trenton Times says there “seemed to be something for everyone in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Wednesday.”

SCANDAL OF THE MONTH: So far, it’s Corzine’s bailout of the Assembly Democrats, quietly giving them an extra million dollars since they overspent their payroll in an election year.  Gannett’s Michael Symons first reported that the Assembly overspent their salary accounts.  The good news for Democrats is that the GOP, seeking an era of bi-partisan cooperation, hasn’t driven the issue.  The new Assembly Speaker, Sheila Oliver, did one of those “it wasn’t me, it was my brother, Paul” things and announced that she was cutting the Assembly staff budget.

GUILTY: James Peyton, a 72-year-old field investigator with the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development, Division of Wage and Hour Compliance, pleaded guilty today to federal bribery charges, admitting he accepted bribe payments from temporary labor firms.

PEOPLE
:  Bill Castner, who served as the governor’s chief counsel and as Executive Director of the Assembly Democratic office, is now headed to Gibbons, one of the state’s most prominent law firms.  Former Republican Assemblyman Guy Gregg jumped lobbying firms, leaving MBI-GluckShaw and joining IMPACT NJ, the firm headed by Mike Murphy and Raj Mukherji.  Lisa Plevin, Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s Deputy State Director, is the new Chief of Staff to the Regional Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Jose Cordero returns to his old job as the East Orange police director after spending four years as the statewide law enforcement director.  Superior Court Judge Steve Perskie, a former Senate Majority Leader, will retire on February 1.

GOODBYE: Former State Sen. Thomas Cowan, a Jersey City Democrat who spent fourteen years in the Legislature, was buried last weekend.  He died at age 82.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg celebrated his 86th birthday on Saturday by attending a Lady Gaga concert at Madison Square Garden. 

QUOTE OF THE WEEK
:  “Hence, the original business model appears to have failed.” – Christie’s transition team report on the still empty 3.2 million square foot Xanadu.  And the mystery of the week: what happened to the $160 million the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority received in ten years worth of prepaid rent – money that seems to have mostly disappeared into the abyss of current expenses.

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This Week in New Jersey