Morning News Digest: February 11, 2010

Christie to declare fiscal emergency

Gov. Chris Christie will declare a state of fiscal emergency today and freeze $1.6 billion in unexpended funds, including $475 million that had been intended as school aid, according to two administration officials. Christie plans to sign an executive order before a scheduled 10:30 a.m. speech to a joint session of the state Legislature allowing him, due to a budget deficit he estimates at $2.2 billion, to direct the Treasury Department to freeze funds, said the two officials, who spoke on the condition they not be identified. Christie will not be requiring additional unpaid furloughs of state workers in the fiscal year ending in June beyond those state workers agreed to last year — including Friday, incidentally, when state government is closed. The state agreed last year not to seek additional furloughs before July 2011 in exchange for the union agreeing to nine furlough days this year. Christie will also announce $70 million in spending cuts achieved by eliminating programs deemed to be inefficient or ineffective. Unspent funds from 375 line items in the state budget will be frozen, with the largest being $475 million in school aid that then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine had placed into reserve in December in anticipation of budget-balancing maneuvers ahead. Corzine’s proposal was initially estimated as a way to save $260 million, and the potential savings were then increased to $300 million in January. But lawmakers never acted before last legislative session expired on a bill that will be required to compel districts to tap their reserves to make up for the withheld state aid. Christie’s proposal is an expanded version of Corzine’s plan. Aid will be withheld from 500 school districts. Those with the largest surpluses — in a sense, those that are run most efficiently — will experience the largest losses of aid, while districts with essentially no surplus won’t be affected. Any surplus used immediately won’t be available to offset property taxes next school year. (Symons, Gannett) 

Wisniewski undecided on Cryan’s redistricting picks

Democratic State Chairman John Wisniewski is undecided as to whether he will follow Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s (D-West Deptford) lead and try to cancel his predecessor’s redistricting commission picks. Wisniewski wants to read the opinion Sweeney received from the Office of Legislative Services that gave him the go-ahead to remove Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins Jr., who former Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) appointed to the Congressional Redistricting Commission last month. “I’m not ruling anything out. I’m not ruling anything in,” said Wisniewski (D-Sayreville), an attorney who is also an assemblyman. “I haven’t seen the opinion, so my habit in life is to know what I’m talking about before I make any pronouncements.” In one of his last acts as state Democratic chairman, Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union) appointed political operative Maggie Moran – former Gov. Jon Corzine’s deputy chief of staff and campaign manager — to the Congressional Redistricting Commission, along with himself and state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-ridge) to the State Legisaltive Redistricting Commission. That left Wisniewski with one pick for the congressional commission and three for the legislative commission. “I’m examining, first of all, the names of all the folks who have either asked me or have been suggested for me as possible picks,” he said. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Santana to drop council bid and endorse Diaz in packed field Paterson council race

Wilkin Santana tomorrow plans to formally end his quest as an at-large candidate for the Paterson City Council and endorse fellow Dominican American Miguel Diaz, according to sources. A newly married school teacher who just opened his own retail school supplies store, the 29-year old Santana ran against 4th Ward Councilwoman Vera Ames in 2008 and was run over by the veteran. He wants a political future in Paterson and has his eye on 2012 and another crack at Ames. But now with 14 candidates in the at-large council race, including Councilman Ken Morris, Jr. and Councilman Rigo Rodriguez, vying for three seats (Council President Jeffrey Jones’s mayoral candidacy creates the at-large seat vacancy), and Santana and Diaz potentially canceling each other out, the fledgling politician intends to fold and back the older Diaz, a veteran of past council contests, sources told Rodriguez absorbed the news with a shrug. “Miguel Diaz is not part of the community and he’s never been through the struggles we’ve been through,” said the at-large incumbent councilman. “He’s only in this for me to lose, not for him to win.” Rodriguez said Diaz is in for a jolt. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ) 

Scutari pledges an open mind on bid to repeal referendum kill bill

Two supporters of narrowly-passed legislation that critics deride as the “referendum kill bill” defended the new law this week, but did not entirely rule out supporting state Sen. Loretta Weinberg’s legislation to repeal it.

”I sort of doubt it, but I always want to remain open-minded,” state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), one the legislation’s prime sponsors, said on Monday. 

The controversial law, passed with the minimum number of votes in both legislative houses last month and signed by Gov. Jon Corzine despite a previous announcement that he would veto it, forces groups that want certain changes the form of a municipal governments to wait 10 years between attempting to enact them through ballot questions. Current law allows groups to petition for ballot questions very two to four years, depending on each municipality’s circumstances. 

The legislation was widely seen as a way of stopping a college student-based New Brunswick group called Empower Our Neighborhoods — which lost a ballot question last November to change the way the city elects its council from all at-large to a partly ward-based system — from trying again in 2011. 

”I’ve been in the City of Linden and the form of government has never changed, and we had drastically different administrations. I’m not sure why it would be necessary,” said Scutari.

Weinberg’s legislation would force a five-year waiting period on government change ballot questions if a referendum has been successful, and revert back to the previous 2-4 year wait periods if it did not pass, allowing Empower Our Neighborhoods to try again in two years. 

State Sen. Robert Smith (D-Piscataway), who represents New Brunswick and whose running mate, Joseph Egan (D-New Brunswick) sits on its council, said that the city’s voters were suffering referendum fatigue after another recent ballot question on a change to the city’s school board. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Gov. Christie is expected to address N.J. budget, declare state of emergency in first major speech 

Shrugging off a nasty snowstorm that threatened to keep some lawmakers home, Gov. Chris Christie is expected to deliver his first major speech on the state budget Thursday, laying out a wide array of cuts across hundreds of state programs and declaring a state of emergency so he can freeze aid to about 500 school districts, according to people familiar with his plans. With some Democrats challenging his dire revenue predictions and questioning the wisdom of calling the Legislature to Trenton after a blizzard, Christie will lay out more than $1 billion in cuts to balance the budget that runs through June 30, the officials said. The Republican governor is foregoing some options used by former Gov. Jon Corzine, including unpaid furloughs of state workers, and will not touch municipal aid. But Christie will announce an expanded version of Corzine’s plan to force school districts to spend their stored surplus so the state can withhold more than $400 million in aid payments, according to three officials familiar with his plans. The officials spoke to The Star-Ledger on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge details in advance. That plan, targeted to about 500 of the state’s nearly 600 districts, was carefully crafted so it would not jeopardize federal stimulus funding and will not require an act of the Legislature, the officials said. But education advocates said it could hit the classroom. Districts “are going to be very worried about being able to provide programs and the potential of cutting staff,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents 100 suburban New Jersey districts. A spokesman for the governor, Michael Drewniak, declined comment last night. Christie is scheduled to address both houses of the Democratic-controlled Legislature at 10:30 a.m. at the Statehouse, but weather and vacation plans may make for lighter-than-usual attendance.(Heininger/Fleisher, Star Ledger)

Christie freezes affordable-housing rules

Gov. Christie signed an executive order yesterday freezing the enforcement of New Jersey’s affordable-housing regulations for 90 days, drawing an immediate challenge from housing advocates. The order bars the state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) from taking any further action to implement housing rules, and establishes a five-member task force to review the effectiveness of the panel and the law that created it. Lawsuits against Mount Laurel Township resulted in Supreme Court decisions that said New Jersey’s towns have a constitutional obligation to provide affordable housing. The Fair Housing Act of 1985 created COAH to oversee that obligation and to formulate housing quotas for municipalities. Christie said at a news conference that the housing act, as implemented, had gone “far afield” from what the court decisions of 1975 and 1983 required. He opened the door to eliminating COAH. “The message to municipalities in New Jersey is that their COAH nightmare is over, and we’re going to move towards making sure that development gets placed back into the hands of local municipalities to make these kinds of decisions,” he said. The state’s procedures for providing low- and moderate-income housing “are excessively complex and unworkable, resulting in delays, inefficiencies, litigation, and unreasonable costs to municipalities and the private sector without appreciable progress being made for our citizens,” the order said. The task force will submit a report to Christie in May with recommendations. Christie is asking the panel to consider the best means for determining whether towns should have any further affordable-housing obligation. He wants members to consider the need for open-space preservation and environmental protection as elements to sound land-use planning, while also looking for efficiencies in the development process and evaluating ways to encourage rehabilitation of existing housing as well as the development of new housing to meet the state’s needs. The Senate Economic Growth Committee has held two hearings this month on a bill that would abolish COAH and return the power to make decisions on affordable housing largely to the towns. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), expressed support for the executive order yesterday, saying he expected his bill to pass the Senate and Assembly well in advance of the 90-day time line for Christie’s task force. (Rao/Tamari, Inquirer)

Poll finds Kean is N.J.’s favorite governor

In a popularity contest of sorts, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean easily retained his No. 1 ranking among nine current and former New Jersey governors, while former Gov. James E. McGreevey still ranked dead last, according to a new poll. Tied for second place were current Republican Gov. Chris Christie and former Democratic Gov. Richard Codey, who as state Senate president succeeded McGreevey after the latter’s resignation in 2004. Forty-six percent of state residents surveyed had a favorable view of Kean, a Republican who served from 1982 to 1990, according to the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll. Fifty-two percent had an unfavorable impression of McGreevey, a Democrat who resigned in 2004 after announcing he had a homosexual affair with an aide. Kean also ranked first in an identical 2006 poll and has increased his lead since then, according to the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch. McGreevey ranked last in 2006 and has become more unpopular. “I just felt that he (Kean) had . . . better control of our state of New Jersey and what we needed to have done, and things seemed to go a lot smoother under his administrations,” said Barbara Hahn, 60, of Pine Beach, who did not take part in the poll. Philip Schoettle, 82, of Bay Head, who participated in the poll, ranked Kean No. 1. “He had a lot of class,” Schoettle said. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, said: “Tom Kean is basically unassailable as New Jersey’s most beloved governor. I think nobody’s ever going to knock him out of that spot the way it stands.” What is interesting “is how Jim Florio has basically moved up the table a little bit,” Murray said. “I really do think that there’s probably a bit of a reappraisal of his administration right now, considering the (past) 15 years of borrowing and budget gimmicks.” Florio was a one-term governor, defeated by Whitman in 1993 after he raised the sales tax by a penny. The raise was later repealed. (Bates, Gannett)

Ex-assemblyman L. Harvey Smith indicted; feds say he took $15,000 from Dwek

A grand jury indicted former assemblyman L. Harvey Smith yesterday on charges he accepted $15,000 in bribes from a government informant. Smith, of Jersey City, served until last month. He did not seek re-election last year. Smith was among the dozens of people arrested and charged in the massive federal political corruption and international money-laundering sting in July. Smith is accused of accepting $5,000 in bribes from the informant, Solomon Dwek, through Edward Cheatam, a former Hudson County affirmative action officer and Jersey City Housing Authority commissioner. Cheatam has already pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Dwek, a failed developer who was caught trying to cash bogus $25 million checks. Dwek secretly recorded his meetings with officials during which he offered them cash for their assistance in furthering a Garfield Avenue project he said he was planning to build. Some of those tapes were shown in federal court over the past two weeks in the corruption trial of suspended Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, who is also accused of taking bribes from Dwek. Smith allegedly asked Cheatam to convert the $5,000 into contributions to his “Smith Team” campaign fund. Smith ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Jersey City in May. According to the indictment, Smith offered to help Dwek determine the status of environmental issues with the proposed Garfield Avenue site and said he could “get the ball rolling.” The indictment charges Smith with one count of conspiracy to commit extortion and two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right, each of which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine. He is also charged with two counts of receiving corrupt cash payments, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence and $250,000 fine, and one county of money laundering, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence and $500,000 fine. (Hayes, Jersey Journal) 

Clive Cummis, prominent lawyer in N.J. politics, dies at 81 

Clive S. Cummis, a monumental figure in New Jersey’s legal community and an influential Democratic fund-raiser who founded one of the state’s largest law firms and became an Atlantic City power broker through his expertise in casino law, died Tuesday at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. He was 81. Cummis, who lived in West Orange, died of complications from a recent fractured hip and a stroke he suffered last year, said his wife, Ann Cummis. With his trademark bow tie, business savvy and taste for aggressive dealmaking, Cummis was among the pioneers who propelled the Newark law firm of Sills Cummis & Gross to national prominence. “There are very few people who practice law and are also good business people. Clive Cummis was one of them,” former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli said. Cummis also harnessed that business sense to become one of New Jersey’s most prodigious Democratic benefactors, often hosting fundraisers at his home in the Llewellyn Park section of West Orange. He advised nearly every recent Democratic presidential contender and was particularly close to former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt. “His political fundraising prowess flowed from the respect he had in the business community,’’ former governor Jim Florio said. Cummis was also a key supporter of the Newark Museum and an early fundraiser for the founding of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and later served as its secretary and director. “He was truly a legend in his own time,’’ said Steven E. Gross, chairman of Sills Cummis & Gross Cummis was one of the original attorneys involved in bringing gambling to Atlantic City. In the 1990s, he worked with fellow Newark native and Democratic stalwart Arthur Goldberg, who rescued Bally’s from near bankruptcy and founded Park Place Entertainment, once the largest gambling company in the world. For years, Cummis was general counsel and executive vice president for the company, which later merged with Harrah’s Entertainment. “In a lot of ways, Clive Cummis and Arthur Goldberg were the architects of Atlantic City,” Torricelli said. Cummis was born in Newark, the son of a salesman and the older of two boys. After graduating from Weequahic High School, he attended Tulane University in New Orleans and earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He also earned a master’s in law from New York University. (Ryan, Star Ledger) 

Albright: Good things Christie will want to keep in Jersey’s budget 

As Gov. Christopher J. Christie prepares for his budget apocalypse message March 16, a glance at the current state budget reveals how many good things he’ll want to keep – if he can. The Citizens’ Guide to the Budget shows the diversity of state expenditures for the well-being of New Jersey residents: By the end of the school year, more than 119 million school lunches will have been served, along with more than 29 million subsidized school breakfasts. There were more than 6.6 million annual PAAD prescriptions. There were more than 16.8 million parks visitors served last year. The average daily mass transit riders numbered nearly 457,000 and there were 13,508 miles of roads maintained. The total school enrollment for 2009 is more than 1.4 million; and more than 830,000 of those students are transported with state aid to public and nonpublic schools. The special education enrollment for 2009 is more than 201,000. Kindergarten and pre-K enrollment is 138,000, and the charter school enrollment stands at more than 20,000. The state handed out more than 96,000 college loans to students through the NJCLASS program and more than 63,000 are receiving Tuition Assistance Grants. Also there was $1.8 billion in annual homestead rebate checks distributed among 1.5 million homeowners and 916,500 tenants. (Albright, Jersey Journal)

Morning News Digest: February 11, 2010