Week in Review: June 6

TRENTON – It was a week of major developments in the Statehouse: The public workers’ pension and health benefit plans, the state’s Energy Master Plan, and the public New Jersey Network are all facing major overhauls.

Benefits battles

The road to reforming the state’s much-beleaguered pension and health-care benefits systems remained at something of a crossroads as members of the Assembly – namely Speaker Shelia Oliver – had yet to sign on to a plan supported by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Gov. Chris Christie.

The plan would require, via legislation, higher contributions from public employees for their nest eggs and well-being and would limit cost-of-living increases.

Concerned about bypassing the collective bargaining process, Oliver said about the reform package, and support from Assembly members, “We are not there yet.”

And while she talked about future discussions with Sweeney, the Senate president struck a more urgent tone.

“I intend to move forward.” He said: “You’ll have to talk to (Speaker) Sheila (Oliver). I’m the leader of the Senate, and sometimes it’s not easy being the leader.”

On Friday, Oliver, according to sources, was working on her own idea: a sunset provision that would allow public workers to utilize collective bargaining again after bringing them up to about 30 percent for health care benefits contributions.

Redirected Energy

To the dismay of environmental groups, Gov. Chris Christie unveiled his new Energy Master Plan that calls for, he said, a more realistic approach to renewable energy with reasonable goals, as opposed to what he feels were the “pie in the sky” goals of the prior administration.

Among the altered goals are having the state achieve 22.5 percent of its energy generated through renewable sources by 2021, down from the 30 percent goal the Corzine Administration sought.

The new energy plan also opens the door to more power plants, such as gas fired ones, as well as a possible new nuclear power plant somewhere down the road.

N.J. Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel, among other environmentalists, cried foul, saying the plan would stifle New Jersey’s progress in renewable energy generation. It had already been the second largest generator of solar energy in the country, just behind California.

By relying more on fossil fuels, Tittel said investment from renewable energy companies – in the form of setting up their business here – could decline.

Station Break

Christie announced he was going to get rid of one part of state government that he always found “strange,” something that he said  should have ended with the Soviet Union: the partially state-subsidized and iconic New Jersey Network.

Christie announced on Monday the state was going to enter into a five-year agreement with New York-based WNET to take over NJN’s operations. He, along with WNET CEO Neal Shapiro, sought to assure skeptical Democrats that the budget coverage, state of the state and other public affairs programming would continue to air. They added there will be a weeknight newscast, but it would have more analysis, similar to the nationally-broadcast “Newshour.”

The new channel, NJTV, is also planning to have Steve Adubato Jr., a broadcaster and son of powerful Newark-based power broker Steve Adubato Sr., contribute some programming.

Cutting some taxes

In legislative activity, the Senate passed a bill that would lower unemployment insurance taxes in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, which will save employers $652.9 million.

The revenue shortfall will be made up with federal government loans that will be paid back with interest.

The Unemployment Insurance fund is expected to be solvent in 2014, officials said.

Education reform

The latest piece of Gov. Christie’s education reform plan was unveiled Thursday, when he proposed private, for-profit companies taking over the operations of some at-risk schools, or opening their own schools.

Christie made the announcement in Camden, home to some of the state’s most chronically-failing public schools.


Week in Review: June 6