Weekly Advance: Week of Sept. 19

TRENTON – As the final quarter of 2011 draws near, the year is unmistakably shaping up for the records as the Year of Something. For all we know, it could be the Year of Cat and Dog Sterilization. It will not be the Year in Education Reform, as the governor had hoped.

Even key operatives and government agents who spoke to State Street Wire are unclear on the particular focus points of Gov. Chris Christie’s recent education reform rollout.

The chief seems to be tip-toeing around the main issues of teacher tenure, charter school expansion, merit pay, and voucher-like programs. At that, his opponents aren’t being any clearer about what needs to be done to fix schools. In fact, they don’t understand the timing of the ed reform campaign. Democrats want jobs, and Christie brought a teacher assessment pilot program to the table this week.

Any chance this shapes up as the Year of Education Reform, as Christie prognosticated? No, not much chance at all, said several sources keeping track of the school beat in Trenton. Even if the lame-duck session proves successful along Christie’s reform standards, there is little chance that the most controversial – and possibly the most significant – reforms will be completed by Dec. 31. Many of the recommendations for legislative changes will be detailed in the final release of Christie’s Education Task Force report – due on Dec. 31. Some of the long-term changes the administration is working on will be sorted out after pilot programs wrap next year, Christie said this week.

On Monday the Senate Education Committee will hear from the Department of Education on the teacher evaluation overhaul, but there isn’t one significant bill before them to consider on any of these topics. Even the fast-tracked bill to convert failing private schools into public charter schools is absent from the agenda.

Maybe the Gov should recast 2011 as the Year of Pension and Benefit Reform before September is out? Impossible, said one adversarial source: the first moniker has already reached tenure.

Tolls as user fees

Christie’s sworn enemy is the tax hike, but some of his recent decisions are prompting detractors to question the difference between, say, a user fee and a tax increase. The Port Authority toll hike goes into effect this week, which Republican Christie and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo teamed up to defeat, uh, … cut in half.

Isn’t the hike a form of taxation on states’ residents? No, Christie said, it’s a user fee; but opponents want to know why a bridge crosser would be charged a user fee that funds real estate development or tunnel improvements. Why would a tunnel driver care about the cost overruns on the new World Trade Center or the height of the Bayonne Bridge?

The AAA automotive group challenged the toll hike in the federal theater last week, but it doesn’t seem like anything is stopping the significant jacking of Hudson River crossing tolls at this point.

Legislature vs. Energy Master Plan

The Senate enviros are pressing back against Christie’s master plan draft this week. On Monday, they too will meet in committee to consider a few bills, some of which are antithetical to Christie’s plans in the energy blueprint and the governor’s decision to pull out of the regional cap-and-trade initiative.

Among the measures on the docket are: SCR239, sponsored by state Sens. Barbara Buono, (D-18), and Bob Gordon, (D-38), which “determines that proposed DEP rules and regulations establishing procedure for waiver of DEP rules are inconsistent with legislative intent;” S2887, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Smith, (D-19), which “revises standards for wind generation facilities on farmland;” and S3032, sponsored by Smith and state Sen. Linda Greenstein, (D-14), which “increases renewable energy and energy efficiency requirements under the ‘Electric Discount and Energy Competition Act.’ ”

Committee activity

Along with the education and environment committees, five other Senate committees are convening on Monday.

The Economic Growth Committee will hear S3033, sponsored by state Sens. Ray Lesniak, (D-2), and Joe Kyrillos, (R-13), which “establishes Grow New Jersey Assistance Program to provide tax credits to certain businesses (and) establishes certain property as urban transit hubs,” as well as S2354, sponsored by state Sen. Brian Stack, (D-33), which “allows for five years corporation business tax and gross income tax deductions for net interest amount received on loans to certain qualified UEZ businesses.”

The Commerce Committee will review S2456, the New Jersey Trade Secrets Act, a retread bill sponsored by state Sen. Nick Scutari, (D-22).

The Judiciary Committee will handle some bills and also interview five nominees for the Superior Court bench: James Blaney, Charles Dortch Jr., Douglas Fasciale, Robert Reed, and Patricia Roe.

The Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee will take testimony from “invited stakeholders” on conversion of non-profit hospitals to for-profit entities, while also dealing with some bills, like S3051, which establishes a three-year Nurse Educator Pilot Program in the Division of Consumer Affairs.

The Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee will hear from state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, (D-1), on the New Jersey Veterans’ Hospital Task Force, and will also hear from the Adjutant General of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs, Major Gen. Glenn Rieth, on the state’s response to Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene.

On Tuesday, the Joint Committee on the Public Schools will hold a hearing in Newark on the state’s process for repairing the damage to schools as a result of the hurricane/tropical storm.

Maybe it’ll be the Year of Natural Disasters – which isn’t exactly heartwarming – but it seems less and less likely that 2011 goes down in the books as the year schools were transformed – unless you’re counting roof repairs.


Weekly Advance: Week of Sept. 19