Morning News Digest: December 15, 2011
By Missy Rebovich
Carol Murphy, former Assemblywoman, has died
Former 26th District Assemblywoman, BPU Commissioner and Morris County Freeholder Carol Murphy died this morning following an illness.
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce (R-26) issued a statement on the death of his 78-year-old former colleague, with whom he served from 1993 to 2002.
“I am truly saddened to learn of Carol’s passing. She was more than just my colleague and running mate in the Assembly – she was my friend,” said the minority leader. “Her public service at the local and county levels was invaluable when she took her seat in the General Assembly. Carol’s experience was a great asset in serving her constituents in the 26th District, her colleagues in the Republican caucus and the members of the Legislature.” (Staff, PolitickerNJ)
Whitten pleads guilty to tax evasion
A former chief of staff to Newark Councilman Darrin Sharif admitted today that he evaded income taxes by claiming scores of phony exemptions and failing to file an individual income tax return, said U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman.
Richard Allen Whitten pleaded guilty to one count of an Information charging him with tax evasion for his fraudulent W-4 form and subsequent failure to file a federal tax return.
Himself an unsuccessful 2010 candidate for the central ward council seat, the 50-year old Whitten entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Stanley R. Chesler in Newark federal court. (Staff, PolitickerNJ)
State takes hiring authority away from Trenton mayor
It seems the state has had enough of the troubles that have beset Trenton Mayor Tony Mack since his inauguration and has stepped in to take control of large swatches of city government.
Under a Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the state division of Local Government Services, the state will now control nearly all hiring within the city, including filling six open positions in Mack’s cabinet.
Mack also has lost the authority to fire cabinet members without first checking with the state and can no longer pay overtime, grant raises and promotions or assign employees in an “acting” capacity. (Isherwood, PolitickerNJ)
Christie ducks question on Codey, takes swipe at ex-governor
Gov. Chris Christie deflected a question today on whether he used his power this week to extract revenge on State Sen. Richard Codey — but not before taking another jab at the former governor.
“What I’ve learned about legislators over time, and particularly about Sen. Codey, is that they seem to be much more worried about the perks of the job than they are about actually getting the job done,” Christie said today at news conference in Pennsauken.
The comments came in response to a Star-Ledger story today that revealed how the Christie administration took several actions that appeared targeted at Codey, just days after the senator called Christie a liar for accusing him of blocking an appointment for education commissioner. (Renshaw and Portnoy, The Star-Ledger)
Busy day scheduled for Legislature
Nearly 100 bills are scheduled for votes in the Senate and Assembly this afternoon, in the Legislature’s final meeting of 2011.
Today’s voting sessions don’t mark the end of 2010-11 legislative session, which runs until Jan. 9. Any bills or nominations that aren’t acted on by that date die, so the pace of activity is picking up with the session’s end near.
Eleven proposals listed for votes in both houses could make it to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk, including a bill that would allow sports betting through the Atlantic City casinos and at racetracks — if the federal law banning such wagering is overturned, either in the courts or Congress. (Symons, Gannett)
School election bill on the table
A bill that would reverse more than a century of practice for school districts and voters will be considered today in a state Senate committee.
The bill, which would allow school board elections to be moved to November and abolish budget votes if school districts remain at or under the property tax cap, will be take up by the state Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee.
That bill last week passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee, 11-1, as it gathered political support from the state’s largest teachers union and an association that represents school boards. (Method, Gannett)
Telecom bills compete
State Democratic lawmakers remain split over how far deregulation should extend for telecommunications and cable TV.
The AARP and consumer groups say loosening the rules could leave residents with little recourse if faced with higher bills and reduced services.
But with Democrats offering competing bills, it appears neither side will be a winner in obtaining full approvals before this legislative session ends next month.
Senators Ray Lesniak of Union County and Bob Smith of Middlesex County, prime drivers of the two vastly different pieces of deregulation, said there’s little chance the proposals will move forward in the final weeks of the upper house‘s lame duck session.
Lesniak’s offering boasts Republican support. It has already passed through the Assembly but has undergone heavy criticism from consumer groups, who claim it gives too much freedom to companies such as Verizon and Comcast. (Jordan, Gannett)
Caylee’s Law and Jessica Rogers’ Law on N.J. legislature’s Thursday agenda
As a sign of the end of the current legislative session and the approach of the year-end holidays, the Assembly and Senate on Thursday will conduct lengthy voting sessions.
The Assembly will consider Caylee’s Law, a bill to upgrade penalties for failing to report a death and criminalize the failure to report the disappearance of a child, tougher penalties for road rage in honor of Jessica Rogers, a Mercer County girl seriously injured in a road rage incident, more bills to create jobs and economic development and shared services reform.
The lower house’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee will also meet to consider the Child Safe Playing Fields Act (A-3621/3782) to restrict the use of lawn care pesticides at schools, child care centers and recreational fields. (Hester, New Jersey Newsroom)
Bill would extend computer access to agency records
New Jersey lawmakers appear ready to approve a bill that will let taxpayers use their computers to review spending and other activities at nearly 600 local authorities, boards and commissions.
Bipartisan legislation was introduced in March in response to a state comptroller’s report that showed how 587 agencies spend roughly $5 billion annually with little to no oversight. That bill is scheduled for a vote in the full Senate today.
The bill would require agencies like utilities authorities, parks commissions and other local boards — what Governor Christie calls the state’s “shadow government” — to post basic information online, including budgets and meeting minutes. (Reitmeyer, The Record)
North Jersey seat expected to vanish
One of New Jersey’s 13 congressmen will be out of a job next year, when two incumbents are thrown together into a new district and forced to compete for a single seat.
Just whom those incumbents will be is expected to be decided next week by a bipartisan commission meeting in New Brunswick. The result will help determine whether Democrats or Republicans ultimately lose a seat. New Jersey is currently represented by seven Democrats and six Republicans.
The panel, headed by Rutgers Law School Dean John Farmer Jr. as the tie-breaking 13th member, will begin reviewing district maps proposed by both parties on Monday. While the process isn’t required by law to be completed till mid-January, Farmer has been aiming for an agreement on a new map before Christmas. (Delli Santi, Associated Press)
N.J. comptroller’s office pinches funds on contractor spending
Two years after the Office of the State Comptroller found the Department of Human Services had reimbursed a community agency $112,000 to send dozens of employees on vacation with their disabled clients, the department has recouped thousands of “wasted” dollars and enacted tougher controls on how contractors may spend public money, State Comptroller Matthew Boxer announced today.
The state “has implemented measures that that will allow it to identify problematic providers and more easily identify expenditures that are inappropriate and unreasonable,” according to the comptroller’s report. (Livio, The Star-Ledger)
N.J. Attorney General blocks public knowledge of State Police overtime pay
In what some advocates of open government call an unprecedented overreach, Attorney General Paula Dow has blocked the public from knowing how much overtime State Police troopers and other state law enforcement officers earn.
Dow’s rule, which took effect this month, is part of a larger effort by the attorney general to make confidential any records that “may reveal or lead to information that may reveal” an officer’s assignment.
The measure applies to the State Police and any other law enforcement officers that work under the Department of Law and Public Safety, but not local police departments, said Leland Moore, a spokesman for Dow. (Baxter, The Star-Ledger)
New Jersey prepares to work around federal agency blocking power plants
For a Republican administration, the Christie team is not too happy with New Jersey’s unregulated electricity markets, which have saddled consumers with $1.4 billion in additional costs each year.
How unhappy became apparent during a routine meeting of the state Board of Public Utilities. New Jersey is preparing an array of contingency plans if efforts to spur the development of new power plants are thwarted by federal regulators and the operators of the regional power grid, including the option of establishing a state power authority to build new generation.
Presiding over his last meeting as president of the Board of Public Utilities, Lee Solomon promised the state would press forward with efforts to build new generating capacity in New Jersey in a variety of ways if a controversial pilot program to spur construction of new plants fails to be realized. “We mean business,” he vowed. “We are not messing around.” (Johnson, NJ Spotlight)
Many in N.J. face hit if alternative tax isn’t adjusted
The big battle over taxes this week in Washington focuses on extending the payroll tax cut that saved the average New Jersey worker a highest-in-the-nation $872 last year.
But a complicated tax that hits New Jersey harder than any other state is set to explode — again — on Jan. 1, and as many as one-fifth of all taxpayers face paying much higher rates.
Yet the scheduled increase in the Alternative Minimum Tax is barely getting attention, beyond a few letters from members of Congress to their leaders.
The reason? It’s not a crisis yet. (Jackson, The Record)
Study: Youth agency could do better
New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families has made strides in many areas, but it continues to fall short of several key performance benchmarks, according to a court-ordered progress report issued by a federal monitor Wednesday.
The report finds case planning, family team meetings and timely visitation remain areas of concern. Completing safety and risk assessments before closing cases, meeting caseload intake standards, improving services for older youths and increasing the quality of investigations were also found to be in need of improvement. (Henry, Associated Press)
Turnpike budget blat; toll hike to fund road projects
Call the 2012 New Jersey Turnpike Authority operating budget a wash.
The bottom line of the 2012 operating budget is unchanged from this year’s at $475 million, but there are 141 fewer faces at the authority, which helped keep spending down to operate the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, said Veronique Hakim, executive director. The total number of authority employees will be 2,011 full-timers in 2012, she said.
“The 141 are mostly retirees. We’re using more part-time toll collectors and there are changes in the flow and function,” she said. “If someone who was sitting next to you retired, it is likely you are doing your job and theirs.” (Higgs, Gannett)
$20 million for S.J. is last economic development vote for DRPA
The Delaware River Port Authority voted Wednesday to allocate $20 million to a cancer institute in Camden, a food bank, a rowing course and other projects in South Jersey, ending its 19-year run as an economic development agency and once again angering its critics.
“I thought we changed our direction,” said Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, who also serves as one of the DRPA’s commissioners. “As I sit here today, I’m not sure we have.”
At issue, in a way, was honor: Should the agency give grants to outside groups to which it had made promises in 2009? Or should it make good on a 2010 promise to focus only on transportation? By a 13-2 vote, it chose the former. (Mulvihill, Associated Press)
New Jersey’s richest county leads rise in food stamp recipients
New Jersey’s Hunterdon County, the hilly region of horse farms and weekend retreats where last year’s median household income was almost $100,000, is a surprising new face of federal food aid.
The percentage of U.S. households using food stamps has more than doubled in six of the 10 wealthiest counties in the nation as more residents find themselves out of work and unable to sell their homes. The increase among counties with more than 65,000 people was greatest in Hunterdon County, according to Census Bureau data compiled by Bloomberg. (Young and Bass, Bloomberg)
Suburban school construction hits lowest point in past decade
2011 did not turn out to be a very good year for school construction in New Jersey.
On the heels of the Schools Development Authority launching just a single project so far in one of New Jersey’s poorest districts, the suburban districts had their slowest year in a decade as well.
On Tuesday, just two of six projects proposed by districts were approved by voters in the referendum votes that take place five times a year. That makes 2011 the lowest year for both the number of projects approved and projects proposed since the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act was signed in 2000.
Only a quarter of the 24 projects proposed overall this year won voter approval, according to the state’s School Boards Association, continuing a trend from the middle of the decade when a majority passed. In 2010, only half were approved. The best year was in 2003, when 93 projects were proposed, and voters passed 73 of them. (Mooney, NJ Spotlight)
Report on Hurricane Irene focuses on Jersey Central Power & Light
The state’s preliminary report on power outages caused by the first hurricane to make landfall in New Jersey since 1903 primarily focuses on the electric utility virtually everyone wants to blame, Jersey Central Power & Light.
So much so that one Board of Public Utility commissioner suggested the state’s second-largest electric utility may have not lived up to previous orders to upgrade restoration service stemming from past outages, an implication that could bode poorly for the company.
In general, though the preliminary report prepared by the staff dealt with the problem that came up most often from issues arising from the hurricane, which left 1.9 million people without power: poor communication between the utilities and local officials and customers about when and where power would be restored. (Johnson, NJ Spotlight)
South Jersey Food Bank to receive extra $2 million in funding as demand increases
Gov. Chris Christie today announced a $2 million influx of cash into the struggling South Jersey Food Bank, drawing to a close the Delaware River Port Authority’s role in funding economic development projects.
The effort is part of a campaign the governor dubbed his administration’s Season of Service, featuring cabinet members drawing attention to charitable programs. Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez toured the Pennsauken facility with the governor today.
The money will give the food bank the chance to “take a breath” and fundraise “not having to worry about the day to day concern that you’re just not going to have enough food to be able to help the people who are in need,” Christie told volunteers sitting before half-empty shelves. (Portnoy, The Star-Ledger)
New Jersey company is given jail contract is lost
Over the summer, Essex County, N.J., abruptly canceled plans for a contract with a private company to house federal immigrant detainees after questions were raised about the sole bidder, a company with close ties to Gov. Chris Christie. But after county officials conducted a new round of bidding in October, the same company was again the only participant, and on Wednesday night, county officials unanimously approved the contract.
Essex County signed an agreement with federal authorities this year to house 1,250 immigrant detainees, for roughly $50 million a year.
Some 800 immigrants would be housed in the county jail and the rest would be sent to a privately run facility.
At the time, Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., the county executive, hailed the deal as a victory for his administration and for the county. (Dolnick, The New York Times)
Upper Freehold prepares for showdown over proposed N.J. medical marijuana greenhouse
Residents here describe their township as a community with lots of horses and green pastures, where turkey vultures take care of the roadkill and residents know to watch out for cyclists who flock to the friendly roads.
Town talk usually centers on the kids’ sporting events, weekend plans and what’s going on at the high school.
But now the residents have a new topic — and it’s a hot one.
The small township has become the unlikely epicenter of a showdown over medical marijuana. Its residents and politicians are mounting a fierce challenge to a proposal to open a marijuana cultivation site in their community of about 7,000 residents. (Brittain, The Star-Ledger)
Toll cheating drops, revenue’s up in Parkway enforcement crackdown
State officials said toll violations in unstaffed exact-change lanes on ramps to and from the Garden State Parkway have declined and that revenue is up since a photo enforcement policy went in to effect in mid-October.
The news comes as some drivers continue to complain to the Asbury Park Press about problems having their paid tolls recognized by machines in unstaffed exact-change lanes on Parkway ramps, although officials said that accounts for under 1 percent of the violation notices issued.
Officials at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the Parkway, also said they’ve put more mechanics out on the Parkway to fix toll machine problems and that drivers who’ve received a violations notice for a toll paid at a malfunctioning basket should contact the agency. (Higgs, Gannett)
Vets4Warriors crisis hotline aims to prevent military suicides across nation
A crisis help line designed to provide counseling for New Jersey’s veterans is going nationwide.
Njtoday.net reports that Vets4Warriors is a new national outreach and support program that offers critical military peer-to-peer counseling for members of the National Guard and military reserves 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Due the New Jersey program’s success since 2005, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg suggested to President Obama, the Defense Department and the National Guard that it become national. It will now be available in all 54 states and territories. (Holt, New Jersey Newsroom)
N.J. begins effort to make military personnel, veterans aware of their civil rights
The state Division on Civil Rights Wednesday launched a statewide initiative to promote awareness among veterans and military personnel of their rights under the state Law Against Discrimination, as well as their recourse if they believe those rights have been violated.
The initiative was conceived as way of helping those who have served in the military and — upon returning to civilian life – encountered discrimination in the workplace or elsewhere.
“This is one way of giving back to those who have given so much,” state Attorney General Paula T. Dow said. “Many people understand that discrimination based on gender, race or religion is illegal. Through this initiative, we intend to spread the word that discrimination against someone simply because he or she is a member of the military and has answered the call to duty – or might end up answering that call to serve – is just as illegal.” (Hester, New Jersey Newsroom)
New Jersey Hospital Association wins $7 million contract
The New Jersey Hospital Association announced Wednesday that it has won a $7 million, two-year federal contract to bring Partnership for Patients, a national quality initiative, to the state’s hospitals. The award to the NJHA’s nonprofit affiliate, the Health Research and Educational Trust of New Jersey, was made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The partnership is designed to improve healthcare quality, safety, and affordability.
NJHA chief executive officer Betsy Ryan said the project will offer “resources, support, and a solid statewide framework to tackle some of the obstacles in our healthcare system that make it difficult to provide the best care in the most efficient, affordable way.” (Fitzgerald, NJ Spotlight)
At NJ healthcare conference, successful strategies for cutting costs, improving outcomes
Research shows that regions of the United States with the highest healthcare spending aren’t getting better results for their money — and New Jersey is one of the biggest spenders. But that’s good news, according to Dr. Elliott S. Fisher, Dartmouth Institute director of Population Health and Policy.
“We do have quite a remarkable opportunity” to save money due to healthcare reform, Fisher told the audience at a New Jersey Hospital Association conference Wednesday. As the new legislation pushes doctors and hospitals to collaborate in order to elevate quality and squeeze out waste, the state’s high cost is unlikely to rise and could even drop. (Fitzgerald, NJ Spotlight)
Transitional Aid bill under pressure for last-minute amendment
Gov. Chris Christie said he’ll likely veto the Democratic restoration of $139 million in Transitional Aid to struggling cities like Paterson, Trenton, and Camden if Democrats don’t fix the bill.
Christie said today that he sought an amendment from the Legislative leadership, which he hopes will be honored in tomorrow’s dual voting sessions so the money can be appropriated to the towns before the new year. (Carroll, State Street Wire)
Year-end Assembly session: Business incentives, college scholarship programs, more
From the use of tanning beds by minors, to revising a college scholarship program, to criminalizing a failure to report a child’s disappearance promptly, to limiting fee increases under shared services agreements, the Assembly has a lot on its plate for its year-end voting session. (Mooney, State Street Wire)
Developmental Disabilities shows progress in wake of 2009 audit, Comptroller says
The state Division of Developmental Disabilities has made improvements in several areas, such as recovering thousands of dollars, tightening its travel expenditure policy and better monitoring contracts, Comptroller Matthew Boxer said in a report issued today.
“We’re pleased that the Division of Developmental Disabilities has made significant progress in correcting the flaws we identified in our initial audit,” Boxer said in reference to a 2009 audit. “These concrete changes already have saved significant taxpayer dollars and will continue to pay dividends for New Jersey in the future.” (Hassan, State Street Wire)
N.J. ranks 24th in oversight of corporate subsidies: national report
Good Jobs First, a nonprofit research center based in Washington, D.C., released the details of a report today that graded New Jersey in the middle of the pack countrywide on corporate subsidy oversight.
According to the group, many of the state’s economic development programs require “little – if any – job creation and lack proper wage and benefit standards.” (Carroll, State Street Wire)
From the Back Room
Gov. less hands-on in Congressional redistricting
Gov. Chris Christie said he’s taking less of an aggressive approach to Congressional redistricting, compared to his in-the-room lobbying during legislative map-drawing.
“I’ve been kept apprised by Mike DuHaime,” Christie said, and won’t immerse himself in the process unless DuHaime or a GOP delegate asks him to. “I have not been involved to the extent that I was with legislative redistricting (and I) don’t know that I will be.” (Carroll, PolitickerNJ)
Christie knocks Codey over car perk
Gov. Chris Christie was prodded today during a news conference for response to his removal of car service perks from former Gov. Richard Codey.
Christie didn’t answer directly whether the move was retaliation against Codey, but instead took a shot at the former governor.
Like many legislators, Christie said, Codey is a politician “much more worried about the perks of the job,” Christie said, “than getting the job done.” (Carroll, PolitickerNJ)
Are Christie, Codey headed for face-off in 2013?
Lou Stellato, the wily Bergen Democratic Party chairman, is already handicapping the governor’s race for 2013. State Sen. and former Gov. Richard J. Codey will win Bergen, the most populous county and politically important prize for statewide office seekers.
“If Dick Codey is on the bottom of the ballot, top of the ballot or on a diagonal, he wins Bergen County,” Stellato predicted Wednesday.
Of course, Stellato has his reasons for trumpeting Codey’s prospects. Codey spread around a lot of cash in Bergen County this November, with nearly $85,000 directed to the crucial 38th Legislative District campaign in central Bergen. (Stile, The Record)