Morning News Digest: November 18, 2011
By Missy Rebovich
McKnight pleads guilty in federal court
The former secretary treasurer of a New Jersey transportation workers’ union admitted today to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the union’s accounts for his personal use, according to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
Kevin McKnight, 44, Jersey City, pleaded guilty to an Information charging him with one count of embezzlement of union funds before U.S. District Judge Claire C. Cecchi in Newark federal court. (Staff, PolitickerNJ)
Sources: Bergen GOP’s political apparatus struggles in the wake of losing elections
It’s difficult to find a metaphor of sufficient misery for what happened to Bergen Democrats up here last year, unless you consider Bergen Republicans this year.
Having manhandled Dems two cycles in a row, Bergen Republicans woke up last Wednesday morning nursing hangovers born of downbeat barstools more than Election Night euphoria.
They hadn’t self-referenced that word in a while: a senate candidate and three county level seats. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)
Public worker unions say they are still a force
Back last summer when thousands of public worker union members were regularly raising a ruckus in the streets outside the Statehouse to protest proposed health and pension benefit cuts, the president of the largest state teacher’s union took to the podium to make a solemn vow.
“Every politician who decides to turn his back or decides to turn her back on the men and women that you represent, just know this,” said Barbara Keshishian president of the NJEA before a dramatic pause, “We will remember.”
“Do not think you can sell us out in June and buy us back in November,” Keshishian went on from a big stage set up on the western end of West State Street; her words amplified by giant video screens and speakers.
Well the date in November that Keshishian was talking about – Election Day last week – has come and gone and not a single one of the politicians targeted for rebuke by the NJEA and other public worker unions suffered at the polls, at least not to the point of losing their seats. (Hooker, PolitickerNJ)
Poll: New Jersey backs ‘Millionaires’ Tax’
Garden State voters are increasingly taken with the idea of bringing back a state surcharge on the wealthiest taxpayers to help plug the state’s budgetary gap, a new poll found.
In a Quinnipiac University released Thursday, 64% of those surveyed supported bringing back a so-called “millionaires’ tax,” with 28% opposed. Among the opponents: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has taken an avowed stance against the tax.
The new poll also found a dramatic rise in support for the tax, with a nine percentage point jump from a survey in February.
Democrats approved of the tax by the largest margin, at 82% to 13%, but independent voters also expressed support by a lopsided margin, 67% to 25%. A majority of Republicans, 54%, disapproved of the tax increase. (Haddon, The Wall Street Journal)
Census says poverty has increased in New Jersey
The tough economy is taking a toll on New Jersey’s poorer residents, with tens of thousands more families turning to food stamps and an increasing number of children living in poverty, according to census data released Thursday.
Some 215,000 households in the Garden State, or one in 15, received food stamps last year — up 23.2 percent from 2009. That’s an increase of more than 40,500 households reaching out to the governm
ent to put food on the table.
Meanwhile, the number of children living in homes with incomes below the poverty line grew more than 8 percent, to some 295,000. In 2010, one of every seven children in the state was considered poor. (Rimbach and Sheingold, The Record)
N.J. unemployment study shows rebound in job count
For 8,100 New Jerseyans, October was a good month: They found work.
But for 5,600 other residents, it was a lousy month: They lost their jobs.
Overall, 2,500 jobs were created and the unemployment rate dropped by 0.1 percentage point to 9.1 percent, according to figures released Thursday by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The figures indicate that 3,868,700 New Jerseyans are working while 402,600 remain jobless.
“The rebound in the job count in October, along with the drop in the unemployment rate, suggests that the state’s economy continues to move forward,” state Chief Economist Charles Steindel said. “The pace of improvement is much less than we all desire, but we are going the right way.” (Hester, New Jersey Newsroom)
N.J. private sector adds 4,000 jobs in Oct. as unemployment drops
New Jersey’s private sector added 4,000 jobs in October, while the unemployment rate dropped 0.1 percentage points, to 9.1 percent, according to state officials.
Total employment rose by 2,500, as the public sector lost 1,500 jobs. The state’s private sector has added 38,600 in the nine months since January.
The state’s employment numbers also benefited from a revision in September’s jobs report. According to the revision, New Jersey lost 5,000 jobs, rather than the preliminary estimate of 11,100.
“That’s a significant improvement, certainly over 2010, and an indication that the state is making progress in the private sector,” said Joseph J. Seneca, an economist at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. “Now public-sector jobs have declined, but that’s by design.” (Kitchenman, NJBIZ)
Christie aims to repair NJ’s reputation
Governor Christie told a group of municipal leaders gathered in Atlantic City on Thursday that his goal for the next two years is to continue repairing New Jersey’s reputation.
“In popular culture New Jersey became a punch line, rather than a source of pride,” Christie said of the state he took leadership of in January 2010.
But through fiscal discipline, a focus on economic growth and several policy changes aimed at curbing New Jersey’s perennially high property taxes, Christie said he’s been able to work with Democrats in the Legislature to make positive changes.
The state’s outlook is now turning around, the Republican governor said during a luncheon at the New Jersey League of Municipalities’ annual convention.
“We have climbed out of the hole,” Christie said. “It is time to raise the New Jersey flag high on the flagpole again.” (Reitmeyer, The Record)
At convention, Christie seeks local help in plan to reduce property taxes
Gov. Christie asked hundreds of mayors and municipal officials Thursday for help in forcing legislative action on three policy proposals he said would reduce property taxes.
With Democratic leaders sitting on the dais next to his lectern, and with Democratic politicians scattered throughout crowd at the New Jersey State League of Municipalities convention, the Republican governor toned down the rhetoric he has recently employed against them.
But he said the Democrats who control the Legislature won’t move on his money-saving ideas unless local officials cajole them.
“It will not happen without your gentle encouragement,” Christie said. “And so we need your gentle encouragement in the next 60 days and beyond.”
In a flurry of statements issued minutes after Christie’s speech, Democrats returned fire on the issue of property taxes, faulting the governor for cutting state aid to municipalities instead of hiking income taxes on the rich. (Katz, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Christie touts proposals to mayors
Gov. Chris Christie urged the Legislature to circle back in the final eight weeks of its session to changing civil service and sick leave, two issues he vetoed the first time Democrats sent him their version of reforms.
Both topics are of importance to local governments and their workers, so Christie made those and the promotion of shared services the centerpiece of his address Thursday to mayors and other officials gathered for the annual convention of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
Christie said the cure for property tax increases is to reduce spending and that his proposals would help in that regard. He said a new 2 percent property tax cap and a requirement that public workers pay more toward their pensions and health benefits marked a solid start. (Symons, Gannett)
Gov. Christie, Assembly Democrats blame each other for property tax hikes
Gov. Chris Christie Thursday charged that the Democratic-controlled Legislature has cost New Jersey taxpayers $43 million in 2010 by not passing his version of civil service reform, an average of $250 per property tax payer.
The governor also charged the failure to act on the legislation left local governments holding the bag for $825 million in accumulated sick and vacation liability.
Assembly Democratic leaders responded that they’ve offered Christie civil service reform legislation and that his charges are part of what they see as his habit of blaming everyone but himself for government financial woes. (Hester, New Jersey Newsroom)
Christie restored $3.8M to lawmaker staff salaries following threats to take money away from Republicans, sources say
After Democratic lawmakers sent Gov. Chris Christie a budget he didn’t like on June 30, he took out his veto pen and sliced $900 million.
The Republican governor then added an unprecedented jab at Democrats who control the Legislature by cutting $3.8 million from lawmakers’ staff salaries.
But after the Democrats threatened to make Republican lawmakers’ staff eat the cut, Christie quietly restored the money through an obscure accounting procedure that did not require legislative approval, high ranking Democratic lawmakers told The Star-Ledger. It happened in late July, they said.
“He put his own legislators in an awkward situation,” said Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen). “The Republican legislators recognized they were in the minority and that their staffs and ability to deliver constituent services would be completely diminished.” (Friedman, The Star-Ledger)
Christie clowns about 2012 run
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie joked Wednesday night that a 2012 run was a story of unrequited love.
“[People say] I traveled the country in the fall flirting with running for president. Let me correct that. They were flirting with me. I wasn’t flirting with them. I said all along I wasn’t going to run, and they just wouldn’t leave me alone!” Christie said Wednesday night to audible laughter from the audience at an event at his alma mater, the University of Delaware, according to a video posted on Time magazine’s website.
In another sit-down portion of the event, the governor also laughed about his weight, saying the media was amused by the thought of someone of his physical size running for president. “They say, ‘’Look at this, the big fat guy for president. Wouldn’t that be unusual?’” (Lee, POLITICO)
Does administration’s new accountability system overstep legal bounds?
The Christie administration’s argument for its powers to unilaterally order the overhaul of lower-performing schools comes about 30 pages into its 365-page application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“If any such district refuses to implement a plan, either in whole or in part, the [administration] will make use of its far-reaching statutory and regulatory powers under state law to compel action,” reads the application.
And as the application lists, much of that power does exists
under state law, as well as court precedent connected with the landmark Abbott v. Burke school equity case.
Under one statute, the state can direct expenditures so that they are spent “effectively and efficiently.” Another says it can “take any affirmative action as is necessary,” including restructuring programs and curriculum and the reassignment of staff. (Mooney, NJ Spotlight)
Cerf issues reprieve from statewide teacher evaluation systems
New Jersey public schools will not all have to institute a teacher evaluation system in time for the coming school year after all.
Easing the pedal on what has been a contentious topic, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf said this week that while every district will have to test out a system tied closely to student achievement, not every school must do so. Further, the new systems will not enforce strict consequences on teachers.
The announcement is a shift from the Christie administration’s initial plan to conduct a pilot this year in nearly a dozen districts and then extend it statewide next year, with possible implications for teachers’ individual job ratings and even tenure.
“Next year, every district will still need to participate,” Cerf said yesterday, “but we have made a call that it will be just for a subset of their schools and not all of them.” (Mooney, NJ Spotlight)
N.J. may face budget cuts as revenue lags targets, lawmaker says
New Jersey may need to make mid-year spending cuts as revenue trails Governor Chris Christie’s estimates, said the Assembly budget panel’s lead Republican.
“I don’t want to instill fear about this, but you can never take that off the table,” Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, of Red Bank, said today in an interview at a mayors’ conference in Atlantic City, referring to cuts. New spending reductions “would be very hard and really difficult on everyone.”
Revenue collections missed projections by 3.1 percent in October and 3.4 percent for the first four months of the year that began July 1, Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said yesterday in a statement. Christie administration officials and Republican lawmakers will monitor budget developments and come to a decision by February on whether to make “corrections,” O’Scanlon said. He declined to say what areas may take cuts. (Dopp, Bloomberg)
Staten Island’s James Molinaro calls out Gov. Christie on lack of toll relief
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is responsible for the fact that bridge toll discounts haven’t been negotiated for residents of New York City’s Staten Island, an elected official from the borough said.
According to SILive.com, James Molinaro, the borough president, told the Staten Island Advance on Nov. 15 that the Garden State and its governor are the reasons that Molinaro’s constituents haven’t received a special deal on Port Authority bridge tolls. Staten Island is connected to New Jersey by the Goethals and Bayonne bridges and the Outerbridge Crossing.
“The Jersey people are holding this up,” said Molinaro. The politician claimed he has been working on a deal with New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo to cut back tolls for truckers. (Greene, New Jersey Newsroom)
Secret perks under probe
The New York Comptroller’s Office is reviewing whether the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey incorrectly included hidden executive bonuses in figures used to calculate their pensions.
The annual bonuses were given to only 11 “essential” employees in 2002 and are equal to between 4.5 percent and 11 percent of their salaries, The Record reported this week. The extra payout, called Longevity I, was one of several that Port Authority lawyers initially refused to disclose because they said it would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Agency officials later acknowledged they have included the perks in employee earnings reported to the retirement system, effectively boosting pensions for some of the region’s highest-paid public employees. (Boburg, The Record)
N.J. Sen. Pennacchio introducing legislation to stem abuse of public employee disability pensions
Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris) said Thursday that he will introduce legislation Monday that would attempt to stem what he sees as abuses of the public employee accidental disability pension system.
“In 2007, the state Supreme Court dramatically lowered the standards required to collect a tax-free, accidental disability pension,” Pennacchio said. “In fact, since the decision the increase of accidental disability pensions issued is more than 35 percent. In order to stem these abuses of the system allowed by the court I will reintroduce legislation, originally proposed by Governor Christie last year as part of his original pension reform proposal, on Monday. Many aspects of the reforms will affect all of the state pension systems.” (Hester, New Jersey Newsroom)
Congressmen seek disabled vets as staffers
Calling all disabled military veterans with less than 20 years of service.
Three congressional offices in South Jersey are participating in a new employment and training program to give disabled veterans jobs on staff for two years.
The search is on for military veterans with a 30 percent or greater disability to work in the home district congressional offices under a new job initiative known as the Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program. The veteran also must have less than 20 years of service and have served on active duty since Sept.11, 2001.
One qualified applicant per congressman will be selected for the fellowship and will be assigned to serve as a case worker in the offices of Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., Jon Runyan, R-N.J., and Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J. (Comegno, Gannett)
Bill includes $15M
Congress kept Amtrak running another year and gave the railroad $15 million to plan a new Hudson River tunnel, but high-speed rail funding was eliminated in a spending package that passed both houses on Thursday.
Bigger mortgages will also qualify for government backing under the bill, a grant program for hiring local police survived possible elimination, and several disaster aid programs got extra money.
The spending bill provides $1.4 billion to keep trains rolling. That includes $15 million Sen. Frank Lautenberg sought to start planning a two-tunnel project under the Hudson, known as Gateway.
“The existing tunnel is more than a century old and not capable of adequately servicing our state’s growing number of commuters,” said Lautenberg, D-N.J. “I’m pleased this bill includes funding to move forward.” (Jackson, The Record)
Despite U.S. mobility slowdown, N.J. residents still moving out
New Jersey residents continued to move to other states last year, despite a national downturn in mobility.
From 2009 to 2010, 193,972 New Jersey residents moved to other states, while the state attracted 127,369 residents of other states.
These numbers compare with 189,956 New Jersey residents who left between 2008 and 2009, a time period when the state gained 138,795 residents from other states.
Fewer Americans are moving in general, with the 11.6 percent of U.S. residents who moved from spring 2010 to spring 2011 registering as the lowest since the U.S. Census Bureau started tracking the data in 1948. The state-to-state and national numbers aren’t directly comparable because they cover different time periods. (Kitchenman, NJBIZ)
DRPA approves pair of insurance pacts
The Delaware River Port Authority approved two insurance contracts this week at its monthly board meeting.
The 16 commissioners on the bi-state board approved a supplemental medical insurance plan for 416 Medicare retirees and 207 eligible spouses, regardless of where they reside, for $1.9 million. The optional F Plan with AARP/United Health Group includes no co-pays or referrals.
The board also approved a five-year contract with Cooper University Hospital for an estimated $94,000. Cooper was selected among 11 bidders to provide employees and their families with assistance with mental health and substance abuse problems. (Staff, Gannett)
FERC slams door a second time on power plant subsidies
For the second time this year, a federal agency yesterday largely rejected New Jersey’s efforts to build new power plants in the state by funneling subsidies from ratepayers to help three developers finance the projects.
In a 78-page decision, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) denied a request by the state to grant a blanket exemption from tough new rules imposed by the agency that make it very difficult for the three projects to move forward. FERC did leave a small opening that the plants could be justified on a case-by-case analysis by the regional grid operator, PJM Interconnection.
The ruling disappointed state officials who have aggressively backed the subsidies as a way to get new capacity built in New Jersey, a step they believe would lower electric prices that rank among the highest in the nation. (Johnson, NJ Spotlight)
Health Department to take on licensing of single-room surgeries
Each year, hundreds of thousands of surgical procedures are performed as same-day surgeries in the state’s nearly 230 outpatient surgery centers, a growing list of procedures that includes spine, joint, and bone operations; cataract surgery; plastic surgery; dental implants; and colonoscopies. The state Department of Health licenses hospitals and multiroom ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs), but it doesn’t license single-room surgical practices housed in a doctor’s office. They come under the purview of the state Board of Medical Examiners, which licenses doctors. But that could change during the lame duck session of the state legislature: on Monday, the Assembly Health Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to make all surgical facilities subject to uniform licensing by the health department. (Fitzgerald, NJ Spotlight)
NJTV picks Montclair State as its New Jersey broadcast base
When the state announced it was no longer going to operate the New Jersey Network, Montclair State University made a strong bid to move the television station to its campus. And while the university’s bid was not the eventual winner, NJTV and the school announced Wednesday a collaboration to bring the station’s flagship show to New Jersey.
NJTV announced its evening news program, “NJ Today,” will relocate to the DuMont Television Center on the Montclair campus. John Servidio, general manager for the station, said the first broadcast done from the Montclair studio should happen before the end of the year. Currently, the show is produced at WNET’s studios at Lincoln Center, in New York. (Caliendo, NJBIZ)
The unemployed, union members rally in Trenton
They demanded that millionaires pay higher taxes, an end to war, no more fracking for natural gas, and health insurance for all.
But mostly, they said, they wanted jobs.
New Jersey’s version was much more tranquil than the Occupy Wall Street event in New York, but 100 angry residents, union members and liberal activists sang and chanted on the steps of the Statehouse to protest what they said is an unjust society.
That included Alexander Higgins, a 31-year-old Brick resident and rising star Occupy movement blogger, who offered the keynote speech. (Method, Gannett)
States strengthening teacher evaluation standards
Teachers and principals’ own report cards are getting a lot more attention.
The way educators are evaluated is changing across the country, with a switch from routine “satisfactory” ratings to actual proof that students are learning.
President Barack Obama’s recent use of executive authority to revise the No Child Left Behind education law is one of several factors driving a trend toward using student test scores, classroom observation and potentially even input from students, among other measures, to determine just how effective educators are. A growing number of states are using these evaluations to decide critical issues such as pay, tenure, firings and the awarding of teaching licenses. (Hefling, Associated Press)
Citizen Action working to halt sale of Jersey City hospital to Calif. for-profit manager
The mission of Christ Hospital in Jersey City is to serve underprivileged patients just as it would privileged ones. But the hospital is in the process of being sold to a California-based for-profit manager, which is prompting a rebuke from a state watchdog group worried that patient care will deteriorate. (Carroll, State Street Wire)
Democrats, union slam Christie’s call for civil service reform
Democratic leaders and the state’s largest union slammed Gov. Chris Christie’s call for reforming civil service.
At the state League of Municipalities convention, Gov. Chris Christie accused the Legislature of dragging its feet on adopting two bills key to government reform and tax savings.
One bill would prevent public workers from cashing in large amounts of accumulated sick days at retirement and the other would update various civil service rules. (Hassan, State Street Wire)
N.J. Policy Perspective hopes poverty study will lead to change
An analyst with a nonpartisan research organization hopes the findings of a national study about the effects of funding cuts on the uninsured will lead to changes in the law.
Raymond Castro, a senior policy analyst with N.J. Policy Perspective, said today he hopes the study by the National Center for Children in Poverty – which showed that reducing funding hurts the uninsured who depend on programs such as N.J. PrimaryCare – will spur changes in how the state treats its lower-income residents. (Mooney, State Street Wire)
From the Back Room
Essex to ask Christie to tap the brakes regarding UMDNJ/Rutgers merger
Tomorrow, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo are holding a press conference to ask the governor to slow down the major higher education merger.
Gov. Chris Christie has announced his intentions to merge the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) with Rutgers University, another attempt at combining the institutions that some of Christie’s predecessors failed at delivering. (Carroll, PolitickerNJ)
Paying math teachers more than gym teachers makes sense
There’s an old saying that goes like this:
Those who can, do.
Those who can’t, teach.
And those who can’t teach, teach gym.
Now, Gov. Chris Christie isn’t going that far in disrespecting gym teachers, but he is saying that math and science instructors should be paid more than physical education teachers.
Why? Because schools – and students – need them desperately.
While Christie’s remarks might be an affront to the merit-pay-averse New Jersey Education Association, which likes it better when everyone is locked into a rigid pay scale, the governor isn’t a revolutionary. He didn’t invent teacher merit pay. (
Manahan, The Star-Ledger)
Congress dances with the NRA
Americans have been dancing with the concept of states’ rights since the inception of our nation. The very name, United States of America, is a sign that our union is a collection of multiple states joined together by a central government.
How much power a central government should have has vexed American minds since the colonists staged a tea party in Boston Harbor. Many cups of tea later, Americans still struggle with the concept. Today, some members of Congress want each new law proposed to pass a Founding Fathers’ test: If it isn’t in the Constitution, it should not become law. (Doblin, The Record)
In honor of Chris Christie’s upcoming toll increase, read this
It’s an essay by James Baxter of the National Motorists Association titled “Why Toll Roads Are a Bad Idea.” An excerpt:
Toll roads are an inefficient, backwards approach to providing public highways. Worse, they foster corruption, political patronage, and discourage needed improvements on the rest of the highway system.
Don’t be fooled by the references to “free-market principles,” “proper pricing,” “supply and demand,” and “economic incentives” from those selling the for-profit roadways. The truth is, any resemblance to free-market principles is more illusion than fact. (Mulshine, The Star-Ledger)