Morning News Digest: February 3, 2010

Future of N.J. Sports Authority: Report to Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t add up

Can you name some of New Jersey’s best fiction writers? How about: Mary Higgins Clark, Harlan Coben and the authors of the governor’s transition report on the state’s gaming, sports and entertainment industries.  The 20-page novelette is supposed to lay out the “significant issues and financial needs” of New Jersey’s casinos, race tracks, stadiums and arenas, and devise “a master plan for the Global Good of New Jersey.” But it fails miserably. When it’s not glossing over mind-boggling mismanagement, wasted millions and huge projected deficits, it’s leaving out facts altogether. Oh, the report admits the economic models for casinos, horse racing and Xanadu are broken, but it keeps sliding its hands further into taxpayer pockets for solutions. The Global Good of New Jersey would be turning off the spigot.  Good fiction has a villain. In this case, it’s the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. But the report makes the NJSEA sound like a superhero agency that miraculously has stayed afloat with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. The NJSEA should be congratulated for “33 years of successfully managing” all those sports “to the enormous benefit of the state.” An atta-boy? Really?
It’s important to note the chairman of the committee that authored the report is Jon F. Hanson, former NJSEA chairman. (Manahan, Star-Ledger)

Christie panel to seek fixes for sports, casino industries

Governor Christie will form a commission Wednesday to find solutions for the state’s ailing sports and entertainment industries, according to a high-ranking source in the Christie administration. The effort comes as state Democrats announced their own attempt fix the problems, with Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, saying the Legislative Oversight Committee will hold several hearings on the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, beginning Feb. 25. Christie’s seven-member panel will examine the viability of the sports authority, as well the state’s money-losing racetracks, the stalled Xanadu project and the Atlantic City casino industry’s struggles, as well as the relationship between the Izod Center and the Prudential Center. Christie will set a June 30 deadline for the panel’s report. (Brennan, The Record)

Ingle: Game of staying in pension system may soon be over 

The dirty little secret about more than 400 state boards, commissions and authorities is that the so-called “public members” aren’t public members in the sense that anyone in the state can get in on it. You and I can get appointed to a seat on the honorary Board of Turducken Stuffers, but the agencies that offer state money to attend meetings are a special breed, a way to plant former political trough-swillers in a job that keeps them in the pension system long enough to get a payout. It takes a minimum 10 years of getting a state check. New state employees have to earn at least $7,500 a year to stay in the pension system, and that is way too low. Part-timers should be excluded. Political hangers-on from times past can stay in for as little as $1,500 a year. When they raised the minimum to $7,500, the ones already at the public trough were grandfathered in. Many of them are greedy. A source told me he got a call from a member of one of these boards who was panicking because it was close to the end of the year and he wasn’t close to having his $1,500. The guy wanted two more meetings before the end of the year. Since the pension system payout is based on the top three years of pay, the $1,500 is all it takes to stay qualified for whatever time is needed, then draw a lifetime pension and health benefits based on three years of, say, $100,000 a year. That’s outrageous. You want some examples? Lucille Davy, Gov. Jon Corzine’s education commissioner and “yes” woman for the teachers’ union, was appointed to the state Board of Pharmacy. Tom Vincz, public relations guy for the state treasurer, is now on the state Board of Ophthalmic Dispenser and Ophthalmic Technicians. His qualifications? He wears glasses, maybe. His former boss, former Treasurer David “Let Them Drink Beer” Rousseau, is the newest member of the Mercer County Board of Taxation, no doubt doing for the people of Mercer what he did to the taxpayers of the state in general. At least with those three boards, there is some kind of notion about what they do. How about the Health Service Corporation Conversion Temporary Advisory Commission? What the heck is that? Mark Matzen, a Corzine deputy, now serves on it. “There is actually a board that uses paperwork to figure out how to reduce paperwork,” New Jersey 101.5 FM newsman Kevin McArdle said in asking Gov. Chris Christie what he thought about the Corzine last-minute appointments and if New Jersey needed all the boards. (Ingle, Gannett)

Poll: ‘The public has spoken, Governor Christie. You are hereby expected to defy expectations’

Gov. Christopher Christie has an approval rating of 33% positive to 15% negative, according to a Monmouth University/Gannett poll released this morning.

A slight majority of New Jerseyans – 52% — withheld their opinion of Christie, who has only been in office for two weeks.

The public is skeptical that Christie will be able to do anything to rein in property taxes over the next four years, but will still be upset with him if he doesn’t. 
A majority – 56% — felt that the state was either “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to enact reforms that will significantly reduce property taxes. Only 8% said that the prospect was “very likely,” while 34% said it was “somewhat likely.” Nevertheless, if property taxes remain high during Christie’s first term, 71% of respondents said they would be “very upset” with him. 

”The public has spoken, Governor Christie. You are hereby expected to defy expectations,” said Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray. 

Only 26% of residents approve of the job the state legislature is doing, while 46% disapprove (In a February, 2007 Monmouth poll, 35% approved and 40% disapproved).

A majority of residents – 51% — said they would be upset if Christie did not cut state spending, but 62% said they would be upset if school funding was cut. Moreover, 47% of residents would oppose Christie laying off thousands of state workers to balance the state budget, versus 40% who oppose it. 

A Quinnipiac University poll from January 20 found that a majority of residents – 58% to 35% — supported either layoffs or furloughs for state workers (the Monmouth poll did not give the option of furloughs). At the time, Quinnipiac Polling Director Mickey Carroll said that voters “we’ll hand you the axe, Governor, if you want to chop state spending.” Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. Gov. Christie vetoes DRBA’s 2010 budget

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is using his veto pen to check spending by the Delaware River and Bay Authority. On Tuesday Christie vetoed the DRBA’s 2010 budget because it contained a 3 percent increase in spending over 2009. The authority’s 2009 budget was $76.2 million, a 1.8 percent increase over 2008. (Associated Press, 02/03/10)

Kean laments the end of bi-partisan civility

An insidious form of partisan politics has crept up from Washington and found its way into the New Jersey Statehouse, according to former Gov. Thomas H. Kean. 

”Whatever disease in civility in New Jersey came from Washington,” he said, recalling Sunday afternoons in 1940s Washington when his father, Republican Congressman Robert W. Kean, would his committee’s Democratic chairman in his living room, and when two Democratic congressmen endorsed his father’s unsuccessful U.S. senate run.

”That’s unimaginable today, those kinds of friendships across the aisle,” said Kean. 

Kean’s laments about the lack of bipartisanship in modern governing came at a Monmouth University forum called “The Politics of Civility,” where he, lobbyist Michael Murphy and gubernatorial biographers Alvin Felzenberg and John Wefing recalled a bygone era in front of dozens of college students who are coming of age in the era of YouTube and the 30-second sound bite.

The focus of the forum, hosted by former EPA Region II Director Alan Steinberg — the university’s public servant in residence – was on the gubernatorial administrations of Kean, who served between 1981 and 1990, and Richard J. Hughes, who served as governor between 1962 and 1970, and as chief justice of the State Supreme Court between 1973 and 1979.

Murphy, a former Morris County prosecutor who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1997, is Hughes’ step son.

”Incivility has become, in my judgment, a cancer on the American political process,” she said, recalling how his stepfather, a Democrat, and then-Senate President Charles Sandman, a Republican, had a contentious political relationship but remained friendly and, in the end, “accomplished a lot.”

Hughes would frequently call meetings with both sides of the legislature. 

”Every meeting began with Governor Hughes saying to both sides ‘Well ladies and gentlemen what are we going to do for the people for the State of New Jersey this time,” said Murphy.

Kean, for his part, attributed the partisan nature of governing to the influence primarily to two factors: money and safe congressional and legislative districts. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. corruption trial informant says more than a dozen politicians refused his bribes

Solomon Dwek, the informant at the heart of New Jersey’s largest-ever FBI sting, testified today that more than a dozen politicians refused to accept bribes from him during more than two years of working undercover. “They said ‘Dwek … go to hell,'” the informant testified today during the trial of Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini. Dwek did not identify the politicians who rejected his offers. Beldini, a 74-year-old Democrat, is accused of accepting $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions. In exchange, authorities say she agreed to help secure building approvals for Dwek, who posed as a crooked developer. The one-time rabbinical school student and failed developer began working for the government after being charged with bank fraud in 2006. He recoded scores of conversations with public officials, leading to charges against three mayors, two state assemblymen and the resignation of one member of former Gov. Jon Corzine’s cabinet. Dwek is facing his second day of cross examination. This morning, Dwek said he exchanged repeated text messages with agents during his conversations with politicians, including one to say he was jittery before meeting Beldini. “Ready, but a bit nervous,” the informant, Dwek, wrote to an agent before a 2009 meeting. Beldini’s lawyer, Brian J. Neary, asked the informant why he was nervous about meeting her at a Jersey City luncheonette. “Every time I went into a meeting for the government when I was working the political corruption angle … I was nervous about my cover being blown or exposed. And I was nervous, uh, about saying the right thing,” Dwek said. On one of Dwek’s recordings, shown out of the presence of the jury today, the informant is shown ducking into a bathroom following a meeting with Beldini and rapidly tapping out a message on his BlackBerry. “It doesn’t stop, all these emails,” Dwek said when Edward Cheatam, a political consultant walked into the bathroom. Cheatam has pleaded guilty in the case and is expected to testify at Beldini’s trial. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison. (Ryan, Star Ledger)

After two weeks, New Jersey residents reserving judgment on Chris Christie, poll finds

Two weeks into his job, and early reviews are encouraging for Gov. Chris Christie, according to the first Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll conducted during the new administration. Among 803 residents who participated in the poll he received a positive rating from 33 percent of the voters and a negative from 15 percent, with 52 percent having no opinion on his performance since his Jan. 19 inauguration. “I hope he does better than (former Gov. Jon) Corzine in every respect, but he’s going to need help from the Legislature to get taxes down. I don’t think anybody can do it by himself,” said Mary Ellen Beres, an office manager from East Brunswick. “I voted for him. I wanted somebody to take his hands out of our pocket,” said Beverly Smith, a retired bookkeeper from South Plainfield. New Jerseyans continue to see property taxes as a defining issue by which they will judge the success of a Christie administration, but remain skeptical that taxes will actually come down. Seventy-one percent say they will be very upset with Christie if property taxes remain high four years from now. While 51 percent would be very upset with the governor if he doesn’t reduce state spending during his term, even more, 62 percent, would be very upset if school funding was cut. The poll also found that 54 percent of New Jerseyans would be very upset if programs for the poor were cut and 42 percent would be very upset if environmental regulations were relaxed. When asked whether they would support the governor if he needed to lay off thousands of state workers in order to balance the budget, 40 percent would support the move while 47 percent would oppose it. “While the state unions may not be held in high regard, the public sympathizes with the average state worker who has a family to feed,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Nearly three-in-four residents, 74 percent, say they would be very upset with Christie if political corruption was not reduced during his term. (Gannett)  Morning News Digest: February 3, 2010