Morning News Digest: December 12, 2011
By Missy Rebovich
Winners and Losers: Where did this week go?
Gov. Jon Corzine once looked like the Democrats’ clever answer to shutting down the GOP for at least a decade and maybe more: a Wall Street progressive with nearly bottomless resources.
This week, their one-time secret weapon and ex-governor turned into the 21st Century version of Millard Filmore, the self-professed know-nothing, when Corzine said he didn’t know where $1.2 billion in customer investment funds went under his watch as CEO as MF Global.
In the words of one Democrat and reaching to find something positive to say about Corzine’s gubernatorial tenure in a conversation with PolitickerNJ.com: “He was a fun guy socially.” (Staff, PolitickerNJ)
Christie vs. Dems: Sick-leave payout battle intensifies
It’s no game, this latest gambit by the governor to rein in public spending. But he says Democrats who control the Legislature are treating it like one.
“I feel like I’m with Monty Hall,” Gov. Christie told a crowd at town hall this week in West New York, invoking the legendary “Let’s Make a Deal” game show host. “You don’t like 15,000? How about 7,500?”
Prowling the stage, mic in hand, he followed with something very unlike Monty Hall, putting away the fun demeanor in favor of a serious attack on a Democratic proposal to halve the payouts for unused sick leave. (Hooker, PolitickerNJ)
Who’s the boss? Tug of war in Legislature between executive and legislative powers
Democratic lawmakers took another shot at the Republican Christie administration Thursday over the extent and limit of the powers exercised by the two branches.
The Democrat-controlled Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee on Thursday approved along party lines a measure that basically says the state Department of Environmental Protection is overstepping its bounds with waiver rules it wants for developers and projects.
But Democrats and environmental allies say those rules are set down by statute and the DEP can’t set them aside in favor of a different set of rules drawn up by the administration. (Hooker, PolitickerNJ)
Christie hits hard, early in campaign for Romney
Last week, Chris Christie shook hands and signed autographs at a convenience store headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa, where he lashed out at President Obama as a “cynical Chicago ward politician” who “promises everything and then comes to office and disappoints.”
On a recent fundraising swing in Florida, Christie stuck it to Newt Gingrich, saying he “never ran anything.”
And last month in New Hampshire, he told a radio show host that Mitt Romney was “the guy who’s going to be the adult, the grown-up on stage.”
Although it is weeks before the first primary and almost a year until the general election, Christie is hitting the campaign trail early and hard for Mitt Romney, his choice for the Republican presidential nomination. (Friedman, The Star-Ledger)
Monmouth Park’s uncertain future is a snag in Gov. Christie’s plan
Negotiations have broken off in a deal to privatize ownership of Monmouth Park, jeopardizing the facility’s future and presenting a setback in Gov. Christie’s plan to privatize horse racing in the state.
Gov. Christie’s agreement, which was reached on June 21, entailed leasing Monmouth Park to developer Morris Bailey and the Meadolwands to developer Jeff Gural.
In that agreement, the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association wanted the state to transfer a license to run thoroughbred dates at the Meadowlands, when they are typically held at Monmouth Park. However, if off-track betting is eventually allowed at the Meadowlands, the horsemen will benefit fnancially. (Holt, New Jersey Newsroom)
N.J. headed for government contraction, experts say
In many ways, the New Jersey residents now know will disappear within five years because of yawning government budget gaps, a panel of top experts said Friday.
The bipartisan group of former officials and academics presented a dark view of the state’s future that included widespread government consolidation, worker layoffs, service cuts and tax increases. Experts said that future was nearly certain to come to pass, even with a rosy economic scenario.
Recent pension and benefit reforms, and a tougher property tax cap will not prevent the state from experiencing dramatic changes in New Jersey government, they said. That’s because the state will need five years for tax revenues to catch up to where they were before the great recession. (Method, Gannett)
Election finance reports detail N.J. Senate president’s spending
Barclay Prime in Philadelphia: $573.38. Filomena’s in Deptford: $599.20. Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse in Woodbury: $706.30.
New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney tapped his campaign funds for these and at least 450 other restaurant tabs over the last two years, election finance reports show, spending more than $120,000 dining out.
The expenses are usually described in state election reports as political dinners or meetings, and most are from the Democrat’s home county of Gloucester.
State rules do not appear to prohibit such spending – derived from campaign donations, rather than taxes – requiring only that election funds be spent for campaign purposes. But the expenses do highlight how the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s top man spends his time and money, and how few prohibitions the state puts on campaign expenses. (Rao, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Political interests could undercut Assembly leader
Sheila Y. Oliver’s first term as Assembly speaker was chaotic, culminating in a coup attempt staved off in a backroom deal that retained her as leader of New Jersey’s lower house. Now, her new leadership team is maneuvering to quiet the tumult, but time will tell whether the chamber’s first black female leader emerges stronger or weaker from the political machinations.
To get the votes she needed for a second two-year term as speaker, Oliver is said to have agreed to a demand from 13 dissenters within her party, who want to keep her from posting legislation for a vote unless it has support from 41 Democrats, a majority of the 80-member Assembly. (Delli Santi, Associated Press)
N.J. lawmaker asks for Gov. Christie to compromise on sick-leave payouts for public employees
The sponsor of a bill to end five- and six-figure sick-leave payouts for retiring public employees in New Jersey is calling on Gov. Chris Christie to sign compromise legislation.
Sen. Paul Sarlo of Bergen County told The Associated Press the governor is holding up the bill over a relatively small difference that would end unlimited payouts for all future employees.
Christie vetoed legislation a year ago that would have capped the payouts at $15,000.
Democrats then reduced the cap to $7,500, but the governor has insisted the cash value of accumulated sick time should be zero. (Associated Press)
New Jersey bill would free towns’ service sharing of tenure rules
When Audubon and Magnolia decided to share services to save money, Audubon fired Nancy Doman, its longtime borough clerk, replacing her and her $70,000 compensation with a part-time clerk at less than $20,000.
That violated state tenure rules protecting municipal clerks, a judge ruled when Doman sued.
With the borough and Doman in negotiations now, State Sen. Donald Norcross is pushing a bill that in the future would make it easier for municipalities to combine services without worrying about tenure restrictions.
The measure would threaten the tenure potentially of hundreds of high-level municipal employees throughout the state, and critics say it is too broad because it does not specify how towns could choose which of the two employees stays. (Vargas, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
N.J. Legislature pushes bills to allow logging on state-owned lands
Lawmakers will soon consider a controversial plan to allow commercial lumberjacks to chop and sell trees from New Jersey’s prized state-owned forests, a first-of-its-kind measure that has outraged many of the state’s leading scientists and environmental groups.
Supporters of the estimated $2.7 million program say it would help the state nurse its 800,000 acres of land back to health by removing trees and allowing sunlight to feed new growth, creating new habitats and reducing the risk of fires.
“People have to realize there is nothing going on with our state forests right now,” said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the bill’s sponsor. “That’s why we need an innovative program in the middle of this economic morass to generate revenue to help protect them.” (Baxter, The Star-Ledger)
Assemblywoman Angelini introducing bill to prohibit growing medical marijuana on N.J. preserved farmland
Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth) said Friday she will introduce legislation that would make it illegal to grow medical marijuana on preserved farmland.
On Thursday, the state Agriculture Department Committee (SADC) released a statement which Angelini said indicated medical marijuana is considered an agricultural crop and could be grown on a preserved farm after the issue was raised by residents of Upper Freehold.
SADC’s position on the matter is not considered to be an action by the committee which could be vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. (Hester, New Jersey Newsroom)
NJ sewer area legislation raises questions about future land use around Barnegat Bay, Pinelands and Highlands
Supporters of proposed legislation allowing New Jersey’s current sewer planning maps to remain intact for three more years say the bill will help with economic recovery.
But on the other side of the debate, environmental groups contend that suburban sprawl would increase and the Christie administration’s goals of protecting Barnegat Bay and other watersheds would be undermined.
Bill A-4335 would let existing sewer service boundaries — drawn 30 years ago — remain effective for another three years. The added time is needed, in the bill’s language, “to remove unnecessary obstacles to economic development during the current period of persistent economic hardship.” (Moore, Gannett)
Hunterdon Republican, favorite to fill Assembly vacancy, has to move into district first
The special Republican convention to fill vacancy in the state Assembly may be months away, but party leaders in the four-county 16th Legislative District appear to have already decided who will fill the late Assemblyman Peter J. Biondi’s term.
The only problem is that William G. Mennen, a Hunterdon County freeholder and an heir to the Mennen deodorant fortune, doesn’t live in the district. Not yet anyway.
Despite the state Constitution requiring members of the Assembly to have lived in the state two years and in their district one year before the election, Somerset and Hunterdon party leaders say recent court rulings set precedent allowing candidates to take office so long as they are living in their district before they are sworn in. (Bichao, Gannett)
State court sets hearing to hear GOP suit challenging state residency requirement for newly elected 4th District Legislator Gabriela Mosquera
A state Superior Court judge has scheduled a Dec. 19 hearing on a residency lawsuit filed against the recent winner of a 4th Legislative District seat in the state Legislature.
Republican Shelley Lovett of Gloucester Township, the losing candidate in November’s state Assembly race in that district, contends in the suit that winner and Democrat Gabriela Mosquera did not meet a state residency requirement to run for office there.
In another development last week, a state deputy attorney general advised Superior Court Judge George Leone that he will be joining Mosquera’s attorney motion in asking for dismissal of the lawsuit. Leone is to hear the dismissal request at the Dec. 19 court hearing. (Comegno, Gannett)
SDA building blocks standardize design and construction
As the Schools Development Authority starts rolling out the first new construction projects in years, it is also starting to deliver the details of what it wants the new buildings to look like.
SDA officials last week presented their board an outline of the “model school” designs that it is using to start the first dozen new projects to be launched by the Christie administration in two years.
Harkening back to children’s building blocks, the floor plans being considered so far for a half-dozen pending elementary schools are each different combinations of rectangular and square sections, each one serving different functions: instructional, office and support “core,” large group, and preschool. (Mooney, NJ Spotlight)
Can urban transit hubs help revitalize New Jersey’s cities?
New Jersey’s Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program has become popular with corporations and residential developers recently, with more than half of the program’s $1.5 billion committed to 13 projects over the past two years.
But the nine cities currently eligible for the program, which provides a tax credit of up to the full value of capital investments in very large projects within a half mile of urban rail stations, may have to share the wealth with suburban areas that can attract large construction investments that retain or create jobs. Bills moving through both houses of the legislature seek to divert $200 million initially from the cities for new Grow New Jersey credits. (O’Dea, NJ Spotlight)
NJ’s comprehensive Medicaid waiver on track but still several months out
New Jersey’s request to overhaul its $11 billion Medicaid program via what’s known as a “comprehensive waiver” from the federal government is on track but could take several more months to complete, according to a federal official overseeing the waiver request.
The waiver is intended to make improvements in the program, ranging from helping the elderly avoid nursing homes to reducing excess use of hospital emergency rooms, while saving the state money. The federal government has to approve of each of the changes the state Department of Human Services has planned before changes can be made because it funds 50 percent of the Medicaid program. (Fitzgerald, NJ Spotlight)
Pension inquiry behind him, Mantua Mayor Chell has judicial-nomination hearing Monday
Mantua Mayor Tim Chell, now a nominee for a New Jersey Superior Court judgeship, was in line for a $41,564 pension from multiple part-time jobs as a municipal lawyer and prosecutor in Gloucester County.
That is, until the Division of Pensions and Benefits launched an examination of the records of Chell and at least 10 other lawyers to determine whether the jobs they claimed as “pensionable” warranted a retirement payout.
In Chell’s case, some of them did not. The state sent him a letter in May after concluding he was due a pension of only $14,729. (Rao, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Growing push in Newark to retake school reins
For a generation of Newark students, every education decision, including choices on curriculum, spending and superintendent, has been made by state officials in Trenton.
That level of state involvement has made the 39,000-student district an attractive laboratory for Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican seen as a national leader on education reform, and for prominent donors, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who have pledged $148 million to remake this city’s failing schools.
But the influx of money, and the attendant national spotlight, has galvanized a growing movement of parents, educators and elected officials who want the schools returned to local control 16 years after they were taken over amid low test scores, crumbling buildings and charges of mismanagement. (Hu, The New York Times)
NJTV selects four colleges for satellite bureaus
Making sure coverage comes from every corner of the state, NJTV announced Friday four content bureaus located at universities and colleges across New Jersey.
Brookdale Community College, Rowan University, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and William Paterson University will all host robotic cameras, provide student-created footage and interviews, and serve as a remote location for NJTV reporters for the station.
John Servidio, general manager of the station, said the bureaus serve as part of WNET CEO Neal Shapiro‘s goal to include mentoring and student involvement.
“The goal of NJTV, and specifically NJ Today, from the very beginning is to get the students in the state more involved in the production of our programming,” Servidio said. (Caliendo, NJBIZ)
New Jersey’s unemployment benefits fund is broke, with more than $1 billion owed to the federal government
New Jersey has gone into debt to cover unemployment benefits for people who lost their jobs in the Garden State.
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) made that argument in a recent NJToday interview about his opposition to proposed legislation aimed at providing unemployment benefits to certain individuals whose hours at work have been reduced.
“It might be a good idea. The problem I have is that our unemployment insurance trust fund is broke,” Webber said during the Nov. 28 interview. “We’re over a billion dollars in debt to the federal government, and what this bill does is create another stream of income out of the fund.” (Wichert, PolitiFact New Jersey)
Despite success on the field, big-spending Rutgers athletics is saddled with its largest deficit ever
It was a sea of scarlet.
Rutgers University’s newly expanded football stadium was jammed with 52,737 boisterous fans for the 2009 home opener against the Cincinnati Bearcats, a sellout crowd that brought in $1.6 million in ticket sales, shattering attendance records.
More than 30,500 of the fans had bought season tickets, including 892 who shelled out hundreds of dollars for new luxury club seats, built to attract wealthy supporters and potential donors. A new state-of-the art scoreboard adorned the southern end zone like a resplendent trophy. Despite the eventual loss, there was an optimistic energy in the air.
That heady day seems long ago now. (Renshaw, The Star-Ledger)
Constant crime has Camden residents fearful, fed up
At Panaderia El Payaso, a bakery and bodega on Federal Street in East Camden, lively Mexican music plays in the background as customers pick out fresh-baked goods from racks in the back of the small store.
Eufracia Trinidad, the small 41-year-old woman at the register, looks up nervously each time someone comes in.
Her front window was pierced by a bullet two weeks ago, and on Tuesday – the day after a fellow bodega owner was shot dead by masked intruders – she was threatened by a group of youths when she tried to stop them from snatching candy. (Simon and Vargas, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Bills introduced: Toll hike approval, reporting sex abuse, vehicle checkpoints
A number of bills were introduced in the last few days, covering a variety of topics, including penalties for not reporting sex abuse against children and future proposed toll hikes at the port authority. (Mooney, State Street Wire)
Hydraulic fracturing supporters back effort with donations
Many of the Assembly lawmakers who voted against the resolution last June that called for banning hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” received campaign contributions from various energy companies that would stand to benefit from the controversial drilling procedure used to unearth natural gas, campaign finance reports show. (Hassan, State Street Wire)
From the Back Room
New-look lower house leadership sparks comparisons to Sires era
The Democratic caucus observed the new lower house leadership in effect last week during the lame duck session and the chambers instantly buzzed.
Part of the deal South Jersey Democratic Leader George Norcross struck with state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32) of Hudson County to preserve Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34) as speaker gives Assembly Majority Leader-elect Lou Greenwald (D-6), Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32) and Assemblyman John Wisniewksi (D-19) input on which bills get posted, sources told PolitickerNJ.com. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)
Corzine, Christie – two men in search of answers
It was a tough week for coming up with answers for two men who seemed to have all of them when they faced off against each other in the New Jersey governor’s race two years ago.
Former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine found himself before Congress Thursday trying to convince his old counterparts in the House that he wasn’t at fault for the $1.2 billion in client money that’s gone famously missing from the accounts of now-bankrupt MF Global.
Corzine headed the Wall Street brokerage firm from March 2010 until just before it collapsed in October.
“I simply do not know where the money is or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date,” Corzine, a former U.S. senator and one-time head of Goldman Sachs, told the House Agriculture Committee. (Hooker, PolitickerNJ)
N.J. just might have a chance for a key role in GOP race
It’s conceivable that New Jersey, which moved its presidential primary back to its original June date, could emerge as a pivotal, nominee-defining state in the 2012 Republican presidential contest.
Conceivable, acknowledge several political strategists I talked to last week, but unlikely.
Here is the case for how it could happen:
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s surge-from-oblivion campaign has made the contest a surprising horse race against the once-putative nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney will not deliver a knockout blow in the early rounds, and the contest will slog on through a long spring.
In addition, the Republican National Committee’s new rules for the nominating contests will also prevent the early anointing of a nominee.
Under the new rules, the pivotal cluster of “Super Tuesday” contests in March will no longer carry the same clout as they did in the past. (Stile, The Record)
Don’t hold me too accountable
I cannot marry “Hold me accountable” with “I simply do not know.”
I have to hand one thing to the Occupy Wall Street movement: They added “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent” to the lexicon. The 99 percent consists not just of people like you and me; everyday rich folks are part of it as well. The 1 percent consists of the überrich. Not me. Not you. But Jon Corzine.
Corzine was always a contradiction in class. He was wealthy. He lived well before public life, during it and, it would appear, afterward. Yet he also was the voice of the disenfranchised while serving in the U.S. Senate and as New Jersey governor.
That didn’t mean that he couldn’t liberally spread his own money around to win over the disenfranchised who were registered voters. The paradox of an avowed champion of the poor being a former Wall Street titan from humble Illinois roots made the Corzine narrative more appealing, more American: a Horatio Alger story come true. (Doblin, The Record)
Jon Corzine’s aide omits MF Global experience from his resume
Former Gov. Jon Corzine is not the only person who would like to put the meltdown of MF Global in his rearview mirror.
His longtime aide and spokesman, Josh Zeitz, has already begun purging from his memory the year-and-a-half or so that he worked for the bankrupt Wall Street firm, which is now the subject of federal investigations into more than $1 billion of clients’ money that is missing.
When listing his work experience on LinkedIn, a professional networking website, Zeitz omits his role as chief of staff at MF Global. While at the firm, Zeitz helped manage Corzine’s affairs.
He now works as a senior vice president at the MWW Group, a New Jersey-based public relations, marketing and lobbying company. (The Auditor, The Star-Ledger)
Slow down the school reform factory
Reformers look on education as something like an assembly line: the requisite machinery and bins of gleaming parts are all in place. If the products that come off the line don’t sell, it must be the welders who are to blame.
Under this mechanistic view, no one stops to consider blindingly obvious design flaws. What if the factory is tooled up to turn out gleaming, new … Edsels?
There’s more than a little of this sort of oversimplification evident when the talk turns to teacher evaluation: Kids arrive for the school year well prepared. Teachers have been taught by the university and certified by the state. Principals and supervisors are trained to oversee and evaluate teachers. (Macinnes for NJ Spotlight)
Jon Corzine goes to Washington
BACK in the go-go Nineties when mega-fortunes were being made on Wall Street, some of the traders had a nickname for Jon Corzine.
They called him “fuzzy.”
Yes, the term was a way of noting that Corzine, then a major player at the Goldman Sachs investment firm, was one of the few Wall Street moguls who showed up for work with a full beard. But in this case, the “fuzzy” description meant much more – and it was hardly a term of endearment.
“Fuzzy” was a derisive way of describing Corzine’s thinking and communicating at Goldman Sachs. As William D. Cohan pointed out in his book earlier this year about the backroom machinations at Goldman, Corzine was regarded as a fuzzy thinker. (Kelly, The Record)
Albany tax hike boosts N.J.’s image
The news last week that New York has decided to raise taxes on the Empire State’s wealthiest residents had Chris Christie calling local textile firms to see if they’d get him 4,760 feet of red carpet.
That, of course, is how much he’d need to blanket the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge as a welcoming gesture to wealthy New Yorkers seeking shelter from high taxes.
The top income tax rate in New Jersey remains at 8.97 percent, but for top earners in New York, it’s going to go up to 8.92 percent, the result of a deal struck last week to alleviate taxes on the middle class in favor of soaking the rich. Head to head, the advantage is still New York — barely — but the higher cost of living in the Big Apple opens the door for New Jersey to make a play for some of the most well-to-do New Yorkers. Plus, they can avoid sharing a ZIP code with the Occupy Wall Street crowd that offers a daily litany on the evils of wage discrepancies between powerful executives and unemployed college graduates whose primary form of employment is scrawling slogans on signs. (NJBIZ)
In Merchantville, mixed emotions about a merger
In the heart of Merchantville, looking back may be easier than looking ahead.
The past is everywhere: in the eclectic collection of vintage storefronts on Centre Street, the exuberant mansions along Maple Avenue, and the more humble homes near the railroad tracks.
But what comes next is on the minds of many in this compact Camden County borough of 3,800: A process that could culminate in a merger with neighboring Cherry Hill (population 70,000) is officially under way.
“I like Merchantville the way it is,” Dawn Schmidt said, as the Merchantville & Cherry Hill Consolidation Commission held its inaugural meeting Tuesday at the borough’s community center. (Riordan, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
NJ tax credit stokes debate
As North Jersey’s apartment market heats up and vacancy rates continue a two-year drop in the region, some developers planning for-rent residential buildings are lining up for lucrative state tax breaks.
Yet even with the apartment market’s strength, could the state wind up subsidizing developments that the private sector alone could finance?
Two developers, for example, have applied for the state’s $1.5 billion Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program, seeking subsidies for high-rise apartment buildings they want to build on or near the Grove Street PATH train station in Jersey City. That’s part of the state’s “Gold Coast” where, commercial real estate experts say, developers should have little problem building without state tax breaks. (Tangel, The Record)