Morning news Digest: February 12, 2010

Congressman calls for N.J. Sports and Exposition Authority to release concert contracts

A New Jersey congressman today urged the release of entertainment contracts between a concert promoter and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, saying the public had a right to know how the beleaguered agency is spending taxpayer money.  U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8th Dist.) demanded promoter Live Nation, one of the country’s main concert and entertainment providers, turn over copies of all deals it has made with NJSEA, which is deeply in debt and facing an uncertain future.  (Sherman, Star-Ledger)

Corzine aide disputes Christie math

Gov. Christopher Christie’s math doesn’t add up, said Josh Zeitz, an aide to the Democrat the new governor replaced 23 days ago, Jon Corzine.

”Even if we accept the governor’s revenue projections, his deficit is — at worst — somewhere between $739 million and $1.039 billion — a highly manageable problem when compared to the $4.4 billion budget gap that Jon Corzine closed in 2009,” said Zeitz, a former congressional candidate who joined Corzine’s senior staff last year.

Zeitz said that Christie “conveniently forgets we have a built-in surplus of approximately $500 million.”

”His deficit isn’t $2.196 billion. It is $1.694 billion. Except, it isn’t,” Zeitz explained. “Subtract the $175 million in revenue solutions that Jon Corzine enacted, which even Christie acknowledged. The new deficit is $1.519 billion.”

”But not so fast. Subtract the $480 million in spending cuts and freezes that Jon Corzine enacted, which even Christie has acknowledged and accepted. The new deficit is $1.039 billion,” Zeitz said. “Oops. Remember when Christie didn’t want to credit Corzine with the $300 million school funding freeze, because he claimed that this needed to be enacted by legislation? Now, Christie claims he has executive authority to freeze even more school funding, without legislative approval. (Remember that “one set of rules” line from the campaign?) So let’s credit Corzine with the $300 million in school aid freezes. The new deficit is $739 million.”

Zeitz insists that Corzine enacted an additional $206 million in cuts that Christie either has reversed or refuses to recognize. 

”If he reversed those cuts, he should tell you about it. If he didn’t, then the projected deficit is really $533 million,” Zeitz said. According to Zeitz, a “generous” projected deficit is somewhere between $533 million and $739 million, something he describes as “a cakewalk compared to the $4.4 billion deficit that Jon Corzine had to close in 2009.”

”When Jon Corzine closed the $4.4 billion deficit in 2009, he didn’t whine about it. He didn’t declare a state of emergency, or grandstand before a special session of the legislature. He simply did the job he was elected to do. Thirty-six inches of snow in three days is an emergency. A $739 million budget deficit is not an emergency,” Zeitz said. (Editor, PolitickerNJ)

Democrats say Christie deficit proposals will change Trenton bi-partisan tone

Remember that kumbaya moment at Gov. Christopher Christie’s swearing in, when he invited Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) to stand with him? That feeling ended today in an eruption of partisanship over Christie’s executive order declaring a fiscal state of emergency.

Democrats, who for the last three weeks have been muted in their criticism of the new governor and vocal in their willingness to join Republicans in tackling pension reforms, accused Christie going around the legislature by forging ahead with the executive order, freezing $475 million in school aid, without their input. Democrats said that amounted to a stealth property tax hike for many municipalities, and were having their lawyers review the legality of the order.

The Democrats had reached out to Christie, they said, only to be spurned today.

”If the honeymoon is over, it’s the Governor’s choice, because he’s choosing to govern by fiat and executive order, and not by bipartisan collaboration with the legislature,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-ridge), who called the school aid freeze a “gimmick” and pointed to a newspaper’s quote of Senate Minority Leader tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) last year saying that former Gov. Jon Corzine’s similar but never implemented plan would “translate into school property tax increases across most of New Jersey.”

”We did this last year. We had $4 billion last year at the same time. And he has $500 million in surplus that he’s not touching, that he can use,” said Sarlo.

Kean responded that Corzine’s plan was vague and could be “rejiggered” for different municipalities, while Christie’s was uniform, specific and that, in targeting only school districts’ surpluses, it would not impact spending that had already been approved.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville), the newly-elected Democratic State Chairman, acknowledged that the tone between the parties shifted today.

”I don’t know that the honeymoon is over, but clearly we’re on the plane ride home,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democratic State Chairman. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

To one lawmaker, Christie channels Corzine

Heralded by his opponents for his blunt-spoken approach, Gov. Chris Christie to at least one power player nevertheless morphed into the Republican version of the man he replaced, former Gov. Jon Corzine, whose soft-spoken machinations ultimately added up to an aloof governing style that even Democrats still complain never made them feel part of the process. Engaging in early symbolism that suggested he would be a robust team player, Christie’s now channeling sytlistics reminiscent of the beleaguered Democratic governor, complained Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen), who also has a problem with the substantive aspects of Christie’s proposed $2.5 billion in budget cuts. For starters, “I’m worried that he’s showing an antipathy to the legislature,” said the Middlesex Democrat. “He didn’t live up to his rhetoric of transparency and bipartisanship, and signaled that he’s not interested in working in a collaborative way. I was taken in by the rhetoric.” Corzine was remote, according to his same-party Statehouse critics. He didn’t work with legislators because he didn’t come from the world most politicians inhabit. Buono’s trouble with the new governor came last night after Christie Chief of Staff Richard Bagger said Democratic leadership would be privy to budget details at 8 a.m., the majority leader said. At 9 a.m. today, Buono said she was still waiting for the information at the Senate Majority Office. So she decided to go ask for it and ultimately obtained assurance that it was on its way from Bill Stepien, Christie’s deputy chief of staff. Buono also objected to the content of Christie’s speech. “The choices being made put a burden on the backs of middle class taxpayers,” she said, pointing to Christie’s expressed desire to rely on local school district surpluses to make up for a proposed $475 million in state education aid. Buono said her alternatives would include using plug money from what she said is the state’s $500 million built-in surplus, and extending the income tax surcharge on the wealthiest New Jerseyans. “But he didn’t want to consult with us,” Buono said. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ) 

Former President Bill Clinton hospitalized in New York City 

Former President Bill Clinton, who had quadruple bypass surgery more than five years ago, was hospitalized today to have a clogged heart artery opened after suffering chest pains. Two stents resembling tiny mesh scaffolds were placed inside the artery as part of a medical procedure that is common for people with severe heart disease. The 63-year-old Clinton was “in good spirits and will continue to focus on the work of his foundation and Haiti’s relief and long-term recovery efforts,” said an adviser, Douglas Band. Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic National Committee chairman and a close friend of the Clintons, said Clinton participated in a conference call on earthquake relief as he was being wheeled into an operating room. He expected Clinton to be released from the hospital Friday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled from Washington to New York to be with her husband, who underwent the procedure at New York Presbyterian Hospital, the same place where his bypass surgery was done in September 2004. At that time, four of his arteries were blocked, some almost completely, and he was in danger of an imminent heart attack. In an angioplasty, the procedure Clinton had on today, doctors thread a tube through a blood vessel in the groin to a blocked artery and inflate a balloon to flatten the clog. Often, one or more stents are used to prop the artery open. The angioplasty is usually done with the patient awake but sedated. It’s one of the most common medical procedures done worldwide. More than a million angioplasties are done in the United States each year, most involving stents. “It’s not unexpected” for Clinton to need another procedure years after his bypass, said Dr. Clyde Yancy, cardiologist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas and president of the American Heart Association. The sections of blood vessels used to create detours around the original blockages tend to develop clogs five to 10 years after a bypass, Yancy explained. New blockages also can develop in new areas. “This kind of disease is progressive. It’s not a one-time event, so it really points out the need for constant surveillance” and treating risk factors such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, he said. The need for another artery-opening procedure will not affect Clinton’s long-term prognosis, said Dr. William O’Neill, a cardiologist and executive dean of clinical affairs at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “It doesn’t really affect long-term survival. It’s a quality-of-life thing. He’ll have to have careful monitoring, regular stress tests.” O’Neill said he had done 10 or 15 such procedures in a single patient over a period of time, and they still live long lives. Former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a heart surgeon, said on his Twitter page that Clinton was “doing well.” “Thousands of these done every week. He will be fine. He will be active again very, very soon,” Frist said. Nearly 1 in 5 patients who have angioplasties have previously had a bypass operation, according to a patient registry maintained by the American College of Cardiology. (AP) 

N.J. Gov. Christie announces state of fiscal emergency with $2.2B budget shortfall 

Gov. Chris Christie seized extraordinary powers to shrink the current state budget today, infuriating Democratic lawmakers ahead of an even bigger fight over the next spending plan and laying the foundation for unprecedented changes in the way all New Jersey governing bodies operate. In an executive order and speech to both houses of the Legislature, Christie said he would close a $2.2 billion budget hole, saying New Jersey is on “the edge of bankruptcy.” He revoked funds from local school districts, hospitals and NJ Transit and declared a “state of fiscal emergency,” forcing more than 500 school districts to spend their surpluses in place of state aid. The governor slashed programs labeled wasteful and worthwhile, cut aid to colleges and universities and killed the Department of the Public Advocate. He urged pension and benefit cuts for all public employees, and mocked their unions by comparing their objections to his 9-year-old son’s cry of “unfair.” He called opponents of his plans defenders of “the old ways.” “Now is the time when we all must resist the traditional, selfish call to protect your own turf at the cost of our state,” the Republican governor said. “We chose to confront the problem head on by reforming our spending habits, and laying the groundwork for reform. We have set out in a new direction, a direction dictated by the votes of the people of New Jersey, and I do not intend to turn back.” Christie pegs next year’s budget gap — which he will address March 16 — at $11 billion, but his dramatic rhetoric and draconian fixes for this year’s $2.2 billion hole drew sharp objections from Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature. Top Democrats questioned whether it is legal for Christie to freeze already-budgeted funds, and said shifting the burden to school districts could drive up property taxes next year. “This is an easy thing to pick someone else’s pocket — you’re taking the money from local taxpayers to fill your budget,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “It’s wrong.” Worse, he said, Christie abandoned bipartisan governing for a 30-minute televised drama where he could play the hero. “So much for a handshake,” Sweeney said, referring to Christie’s widely praised gesture to invite Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) to the podium during his inaugural speech less than a month ago. (Heininger/Fleisher, Star Ledger) 

Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini is found guilty on two charges in N.J. corruption trial 

Leona Beldini, a Jersey City deputy mayor arrested in last summer’s epic FBI sting, was convicted today on two of six corruption counts for taking bribes from a government informant who traversed the state with cash-filled envelopes and a gift for talking his way into meetings with powerful officials. The 74-year-old Democrat stood impassively with her hands folded as a jury of eight men and four women in federal court in Newark announced she was guilty of accepting $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions from the informant, who posed as a developer offering bribes in exchange for building approvals. Beldini was acquitted of four counts, including the three most serious: conspiracy to commit extortion and two counts of attempted extortion. She faces up to 10 years in prison for each of the two bribery counts, but could be sentenced to much less time under federal guidelines. Sentencing is scheduled for June 1. The one-time burlesque dancer was charged last July in the money-laundering and corruption sting that netted five rabbis, three mayors, two assemblymen and one man accused of conspiring to sell a human kidney. Beldini was the first to face a jury. “Every case like this that we bring is designed to send a message. And the message is that public service is about something other than enriching yourself and enriching your friends and your colleagues,” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said. Beldini’s lawyer, Brian J. Neary, denounced the verdict, saying it was “inconsistent” for jurors to acquit her of extortion, yet convict her of bribery. Both the extortion and bribery counts accused her of accepting the same $20,000 in campaign donations on behalf of Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, who has not been charged. And they both accused her of agreeing to help the informant secure zoning changes for a 750-unit luxury condominium complex he claimed to be building. Neary said he planned to file a motion to dismiss the verdict. (Ryan, Star Ledger) 

N.J. environmental groups accuse Gov. Christie of ‘raiding’ funds for clean air, water 

State environmental groups today accused Gov. Chris Christie of attacking the environment by “raiding” the state’s Clean Energy Fund, the Highlands Council budget and other coffers dedicated to clean air and water protections. Christie declared a fiscal state of emergency today and, in an effort to close a $2.2 billion budget deficit, cut $9 million in aid for the Department of Environmental Protection, $1.7 million for state parks and $500,000 for the Pinelands Commission. In addition, he took $18 million in existing funds from the Highlands Council which controls development in seven northern New Jersey counties. The money had been given to the council by Public Service Electric & Gas last June to preserve land in exchange for the council approving a project to expand 240 electric towers along the Susquehanna-Roseland power line stretching 44 miles from the Delaware River to Essex County. Environmental groups oppose the line, which won another approval today by the state Board of Public Utilities. “This was money committed to the towns in the Highlands. It’s a direct assault on the Highlands,” said Julia Somers of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, a watchdog group. Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said Highlands protection efforts are now losing millions of dollars while the region is forced to host a power line project that will use electrical energy derived from coal-burning plants that pollute the air. “Governor Christie sold out the environment today,” Tittel said. Tittel also chided the governor for taking another $158 million in existing funds from the Clean Energy Fund operated by the BPU. The program gets about $269 million a year from surcharges on ratepayers to finance energy efficiency improvements in businesses and homes, including installation of solar panels and windmills. The program is credited with building alternative energy markets, and creating jobs. “This is not money for the state to use on general programs,” said Matt Elliott of Environment New Jersey. “This raid represents about half of what Clean Energy money is available this year. We now will be doing less solar projects and less retrofitting of houses for energy efficiency.” (Murray, Star Ledger) 

N.J. Democrats blast Gov. Chris Christie for circumventing Legislature 

The honeymoon is officially over.

Top Democrats who had pledged to work with Republican Gov. Chris Christie sharply changed their rhetoric today, saying Christie had abandoned bipartisan governing for a televised drama where he could play the hero.

”So much for a handshake,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), referring to Christie’s widely praised gesture to invite Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) to the podium during his inaugural speech less than a month ago. “Governing by executive order and keeping plans secret until the last minute is not bipartisanship.”
 Sweeney said Christie was using the Democratic-controlled Legislature as “just a studio audience” for his major speech on the state budget today. Oliver said the Assembly Budget Committee would hold a hearing on Christie’s plan next week to “give it the transparency that it so far has lacked and the public deserves.” Democrats objected to the substance of Christie’s speech — chiefly a plan to freeze state aid for more than 500 school districts — and his style of not providing them details in advance. They said he was heaping unnecessary drama on New Jersey’s budget problems and acting like a dictator by declaring a state of emergency to solve them. Christie’s executive order says that “until such time as the current state of fiscal emergency is terminated, I reserve the right to take such additional actions, invoke such additional emergency powers and issue such emergency orders or directives as may be necessary to meet the potentially devastating problems presented by this emergency, to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of this state, and to ensure the continued provision of essential state services.” Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) said that could mean the governor has given himself power to break contracts, set aside civil service rules or anything else he says is necessary. “It’s carte blanche,” she said. “What concerns me is what the governor did today is in essence declare martial law. He invoked the emergency disaster control relief act, which gives him enormous powers to really circumvent the Legislature.”

Christie — who needs the Legislature’s help to pass the upcoming state budget and accomplish many of his other campaign promises — tried to anticipate the criticisms in his speech. (Heininger/Fleisher, Star Ledger) 

Stile: Christie budget speech provokes howls €” just as desired 

Governor Christie’s “emergency” budget speech on Thursday included this one inaccurate prediction: “The defenders of the status quo will start chattering as soon as I leave this chamber,” he said. They didn’t chatter. They howled. “Three weeks into his administration, all we know so far about the governor’s budget priorities are that they consist of an income tax cut for millionaires and a property tax increase for everyone else,” complained Sen. Paul Sarlo of Wood-Ridge, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Christie’s speech was as much a strategic political provocation as it was a strategy to close a $2 billion shortfall in the current state budget. He successfully goaded Democrats into a wartime footing. Democrats sat as his polite, glum audience during the speech and became his foil the instant he left. The Democrats followed of a time-honored Trenton tradition of acting as the loyal, critical opposition, which suited the Christie scheme just fine. The same hand he extended to Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver in a grand gesture of bipartisan cooperation at his inauguration can now point an angry finger of blame at the duo and their members. They will soon be depicted as the intransigent, parochial enemies of change. “They’ll say the problems are not that bad; listen to me, I can spare you the pain and sacrifice. We know this is simply not true. New Jersey has been steaming toward financial disaster for years due to that kind of attitude,” Christie said. Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University pollster who watched the speech, said it was a bold step and let Christie appear that he is controlling the debate. “People know that there has to be an enemy in the process,” Murray said. “If it looks like the Democrats are defending the status quo, then they are part of the problem.” Christie signaled earlier this week that the bipartisan cordiality was about to come crashing down. He kept the Democrats in the dark over the speech details until Wednesday night, when a cursory summary was provided to Sweeney and Oliver in a five-minute conference call. Details were expected to follow the next morning in an 8 a.m. e-mail that didn’t arrive until closer to 9:30 a.m., an hour before the speech. Democrats also fumed over Christie’s executive order, his 14th in four weeks, which he’ll use to carry out bold budget-balancing measures, including a $475 million cut in school aid and a $12 million cut in reimbursements to hospitals for treating uninsured patients. Some Democrats began hinting that Christie has a Napoleonic streak, using executive orders to bypass the Legislature, where Democrats maintain majority control. (Stile, The Record) 

Mulshine: Gov. Chris Christie fires the first shot in what will be a long war 

They used to call singer Mel Torme “the Velvet Fog.” But after yesterday, I’m ready to hand that nickname to Bret Schundler. The former Jersey City mayor and unsuccessful 2001 Republican gubernatorial nominee is the new state education commissioner. In that role he was left to explain away $560 million in school-aid cuts after Gov. Chris Christie had finished telling a joint session of the Legislature that the state faces a fiscal emergency. Most of the education savings will be attained by forcing school boards to use up surpluses in their budgets. When Democrats have tried this trick in the past, the Republicans charged that it was a property tax increase in disguise. Those surpluses should be used to reduce the next year’s tax bill, they said. That was a good argument back then. So how did Schundler defend against it when the Democrats were pushing the exact same line of reasoning? “We’ll give them tools to avoid tax hikes,” Schundler said of the school boards. It sounded nice, like a trip to Home Depot. But you can buy a screwdriver in one aisle and a chainsaw a few aisles over. Schundler didn’t say which tool he was recommending. And with Schundler, the press doesn’t want to get him started anyway. Ask a question and you get a dissertation. That’s not a bad way to handle the critics the administration will meet in the long battle that began with yesterday’s skirmish. The teachers’ unions don’t want to confront the unpleasant reality that there simply is no more revenue available for their endless “breathing bonuses.” That unflattering term for longevity pay comes from the leader of the loyal opposition, Senate President Steve Sweeney. The Democrat from South Jersey enraged the public employee unions a few years ago when he employed that term during Jon Corzine’s failed effort to deal with property taxes. Yesterday, Christie alluded to the climax of that battle when he told the legislators, “unlike in the past when you stood up and did what was right, this governor will not pull the rug out from under you.” It was an obvious reference to Corzine’s infamous letter to legislative leaders in 2007 informing them that he was going to ignore the reforms they had worked on for months. But the Democratic leaders made it obvious after the speech that they felt Christie had pulled the rug out from under them this time around. The Dems complained about getting little or no notice of many of the cuts before the speech. (Mulshine, Star Ledger) 

Editorial: What’s in a name? It’s too soon to honor former Essex County prosecutor Paula Dow 

The push to name an Essex County building after Paula Dow is a bad idea rife with conflicts of interest. Dow is the former county prosecutor now on her way to being named the state’s new attorney general. The Essex County freeholders want to chisel her name into the side of a building to pronounce to the world that one of their own has made good. Essex County freeholder Ralph Caputo says, “It’s quite fitting.” Actually, it’s wrong for many reasons, and it’s telling that elected officials don’t see that. Let’s remember that Essex County freeholder Samuel Gonzalez is under indictment for election fraud. Gonzalez hasn’t resigned, so, unless he recuses himself, he could vote on whether to name a building after the woman whose office will try to put him in jail. Another problem: One of the biggest supporters of the “Essex County Prosecutor Paula T. Dow Crime Scene Unit” is County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, who said Dow is “well-deserving.” While DiVincenzo hasn’t been connected to any of the alleged criminal activity, he probably should refrain from commenting on possible impropriety because he scored so poorly on the last test: When his buddy, election superintendent Carmine Casciano, was charged with giving unauthorized paid holidays to employees who worked on political campaigns, DiVincenzo refused to ask his friend to resign. Casciano eventually did. David H. Weiner, president of CWA Local 1081, which represents 650 welfare workers, says the Dow Building “could be construed as an attempt to influence her in the performance of her public duties.” He’s right. Dow, the acting attorney general, will become the chief law enforcement officer policing state and local officials. Dow’s spokesman said she is not seeking the honor and would leave the decision to DiVincenzo. He defends the naming by saying Dow “brought morale up.” (Star Ledger) 

Stile: Combativeness may hurt Christie 

Governor Christie seems to enjoy the State House bully pulpit, where he speaks loudly and swings a big stick. At times, though, he sounds less like Teddy Roosevelt and more like 1970s B-movie “Walking Tall” Sheriff Buford Pusser, who clobbered miscreants with an oversized wooden club. Christie’s club is his sharp tongue that bludgeons bureaucrats, union leaders and over-paid operatives running patronage mills. On Governor Corzine’s final budget forecast: “Avoidance of the facts and avoidance of the truth was a staple of the Corzine administration.” On a Democratic proposal to force him to appoint a Democrat if either of the state’s current U.S. senators resigns: “This is garbage. It’s garbage. It’s political lying is what it is. … There are no niceties to be put around this. This is a political power play by the party that’s losing power, and it’s wrong.” On Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners Executive Director Bryan Christiansen’s salary: “I think the taxpayers of New Jersey are going to be appalled to learn that somebody who runs a commission that gets its money predominantly from disadvantaged ratepayers has an executive director who’s making $313,000 a year. It’s completely outrageous.” Christie is not stopping to catch his breath and he certainly doesn’t care whether pillars of the Trenton status quo leave his front office with an egg-size lump on their heads. The governor’s bully pulpit is Christie’s fighter-jet cockpit where he takes aim at enemies that stumble into the cross hairs of his rhetoric. And there is a method to Christie’s mad fury. The post-economic meltdown public is pitchfork angry and scared. It feels betrayed by the politicians. Voters are impatient, eager for results, anything that will keep them off the unemployment line and their homes out of foreclosure. As a candidate, Christie was shrewd enough to ride that discontent by pinning responsibility on Jon Corzine. It worked. It won him an 86,000-vote margin of victory. Now, in his first month of office, Christie is pinning blame on the calcified political class that has dominated the Trenton agenda for decades. Whether it works or not is uncertain, but the goal is to turn those votes into a support for an aggressive reform, some of which will be detailed in today’s special address on the budget crisis. Although Christie has been mum on the details, his populist pledge to rein in government waste and spending has already struck a chord with voters, according to recent polls. (Stile, The Record)

Morning news Digest: February 12, 2010