Weekly Advance: Week of Aug. 1

TRENTON – This week, there’s only one thing to do: Get in line.

Want to sue the state? Get in line. Driver’s license expired? Get in line. Want to sell a hospital? Get in line.

The line starts in Trenton, where lawsuits over reforms are slowly making their way to a courtroom; where angry motorists will swear miserably at government computers; and where city-owned hospitals in New Jersey may become extinct.

The state has at least two lawsuits it’s readying to fend off, both a result of pension and benefits reforms passed last month. Gov. Chris Christie said he is confident in the state’s legal footing, remarking that the unions might as well “get in line” with other litigants against the state.

The larger of the two challenges will come from the public sector unions, including the N.J. Education Association and other large labor groups, with the main objection being that the state’s freeze on pensioners’ cost of living adjustments constitutes a breach of contract. That legal basis has been invalidated by a few Midwestern states recently, although it has never been tested in New Jersey. The lawsuit has yet to be filed, but is expected either next week or the following week.

The lesser of the two court cases – at least by the number of parties involved – may actually have the stronger legal basis, according to a few sources. A group of judges led by Hudson County Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale are suing the state on the grounds that increased contribution rates for pension and benefits are in violation of the state Constitution’s clause stating compensation for judges “shall not be diminished during the term of their appointment.”

In response, Republican Assemblyman Sam Thompson, (R-13), of Old Bridge, submitted legislation last week, a voter referendum to change the state Constitution “to make it clear that judges must participate in benefits reform like every other public employee,” he said in a release.

Thompson, who’s trying to move up to the Senate in November, called DePascale’s lawsuit “frivolous,” and asked for it to be “summarily dismissed” and the taxpayers reimbursed for the cost. He’ll have to wait until at least Friday, Sept. 16 when the case is first before a Mercer County judge for that decision to be made.

Given “baffling” decisions in the past, Thompson added: “I don’t have faith that our judicial system will adjudicate this case correctly.”

“(DePascale’s) absurd argument suggests he does not know the difference between salary and take-home pay,” Thompson said. “According to his logic, judges would be immune to any change in the items deducted from pay checks such as income taxes, workers’ compensation or Social Security.” Immunity from income tax hikes? Get in line.

Full speed ahead

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee will convene at the Lodi Municipal Complex in Bergen County on Thursday to vent about service reductions and computer failures at the Motor Vehicle Centers.

The food fight between Dems and the GOP on this issue should allow for some interesting “blame game” interactions. Batteries recharged after a break from Statehouse action, state Sens. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), Wood-Ridge, and Barbara Buono, (D-18), Metuchen, will face off against state Sens. Joe Kyrillos, (R-13), Middletown, and Kevin O’Toole, (R-40), Cedar Grove, to decide who caused the series of malfunctions that had New Jerseyans queueing for hours on end in 39 MVCs across the state over the past two months.

The storylines go something like this: the Democratic majorities rejected $35 million for MVC computer system upgrades, while they say Christie raided $136 million of agency revenue this year that could have been used for infrastructure improvements. Lots of angst about the midsummer inconvenience, but our advice: Get in line.

Prescription: Sale

Finally, the State Health Planning Board will consider the proposed sale of Hoboken University Medical Center on Thursday. HUMC is the only city-owned hospital in the state, with a 2006 law sponsored by Hoboken state Sen. Bernie Kenny designed specifically to allow the city to underwrite $52 million in bonds to save the operation from financial doom and almost certain closure.

With the proposed sale moving the medical center off the city’s books and into the hands of a for-profit manager that also owns Bayonne Medical Center, the law could find an end to its useful life.

Just as the Hoboken transition is getting under way, news also broke last week that nearby Christ Hospital in Jersey City is seeking state approval for its sale to a for-profit hospital management firm from California. Likely answer from state officials to Christ Hospital: Get in line.

Weekly Advance: Week of Aug. 1