Speaker Oliver: discussion on education reform must focus on poor, urban districts; wants millionaire’s tax

TRENTON – Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-34) defiantly defended a turbulent two years characterized by public pension and charter

TRENTON – Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-34) defiantly defended a turbulent two years characterized by public pension and charter school reform and caucus clashes.

Nine years in the Assembly and two years as the Speaker, Oliver formally kicked off the start of the 215th Legislative Session arguing accomplishment amid “the rapids.”

“These initiatives revealed intense ideological divides,” the Speaker acknowledged. “In the long run what we accomplish will serve as proof to future (leaders that to) chart positive course, we need to take these actions.”

But the debate is more complicated than throwing around slogans and blaming teachers, said Oliver, apparently digs at Gov. Chris Christie.

Oliver said no one can claim to be helping who cuts school lunches and reduces access to healthcare for women and children. 

She doubled down.

“Teachers are not the enemy,” said the speaker.

She also revisited what she sees as the need of a so-called millionaire’s tax, decrying as unfair Christie’s refusal to enact one in tough economic times. 

“A call for shared sacrifice should include all residents of New Jersey,” said the speaker.

She also reiterated Democratic leadership’s desire to get marriage equality accomplished in this session.

A full transcript of Speaker Oliver’s speech is reprinted below:

“Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends and family − thank you very much for coming today and for your gracious and warm welcome.

On behalf of everyone sitting behind me, I want to offer our sincere gratitude to the people of New Jersey for the support and trust they have placed in us.

Last week the New Jersey General Assembly – and for that matter, the entire state of New Jersey – was struck by an inconceivable tragedy when we lost our friend Alex DeCroce.

We have mourned Alex ever since, and will never forget his great service to the people of our state. He was a gentleman, a statesman and a tireless advocate for what he believed was right. He was a fixture in the Assembly and it will be difficult to move on without him.

And as we mourn Alex,  let’s also take a moment to honor the memories of two other friends and public servants who served New Jersey with distinction: Assemblyman Peter Biondi who would have been serving his eighth term; and former Assemblywoman Carol Murphy.  

On behalf of the New Jersey Assembly, I thank them all for their service.

Let us all pause in a collective moment of silence in their honor.

Today we commemorate the start of the Two Hundred and Fifteenth Legislative Session. 

I am honored to continue my ninth year of public service in Trenton, and to embark upon my second term as the Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly.

I want to congratulate Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Assemblyman Dave Rible for their continued roles and service in Assembly Republican leadership.

And I look forward to working with our Democratic leadership team in the Assembly: Lou Greenwald, Jerry Green, Gordon Johnson, John Wisniewski and Vincent Prieto.

I want to offer a special welcome to our new members of the Assembly, and also congratulate those who were re-elected to serve another term in the People’s House. 

I had the honor of standing in this spot two years ago, or seven hundred and thirty-five days ago … not that I have been counting.

And in what is probably the biggest understatement you will hear from me today, it was certainly an interesting two years.

Another thing for sure: It was never boring.

But it was also historic.

We tackled issues vitally important to New Jerseyans.

We made history with a two percent cap on property tax growth.

We persevered to ease the burden on property taxpayers and stabilize the benefits system for our valued public servants.

We battled the difficult economy with numerous job creation and economic development measures.

We took strides toward charter school reform.

Ladies and gentlemen, it would be disingenuous to say the least, for me to stand before you and ignore or even gloss over the reality that these initiatives created intense ideological divides.

But I am certain of this: In the long run what we accomplished will serve as proof to successive generations of state leaders that to chart a positive future for our state, we need to take these types of demonstrative actions.

As I often say, leadership means summoning up our courage to swim upstream when the current is going in another direction.  So to my fellow colleagues in the Assembly, I advise you to take a few deep breaths and get ready to once again plunge into those rapids because we have some major unresolved issues.  Let me cite some for you.

Access to quality health care for women and the poor remains a worry.

Shared sacrifice was never truly achieved.

New Jersey’s unemployment rate remains unacceptably high.

Crime and public safety is still an increasing concern for the men, women and children in many neighborhoods amid police and firefighter layoffs.

Today, as we stand on the threshold of another legislative session, let us commit to setting aside partisanship and grandstanding to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Let’s take education reform.

Educating our children should not be like schoolyard fights where the aggressive and menacing kids who yell the loudest are the victors.

Nelson Mandela wisely surmised: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

We should be working together to find common agreement on improving the quality of education in our state, as we did on the Urban Hope bill signed into law last week.

It will, after all, take full cooperation at all levels and a respect for all viewpoints.

We will have to address this realistically. 

Here’s a start.

According to recent data, fourth- and eighth-graders in New Jersey ranked near the top in tests in math and reading.

Yet that same data showed an achievement gap between wealthy and poor students that is among the highest in the country.

That’s why our discussion on education reform must focus on the fact that the real concern is education in poor urban school districts.

The problems facing our poorest children in failing urban schools is more complicated than throwing around slogans and blaming teachers.

Our poorest children and their families are each and every day facing social and economic problems that have a direct negative impact on the ability to learn.

We will not solve the problems facing failing schools until we also confront the consequences of poverty.

No one can claim to be helping when they’re also cutting the school breakfast program, raising income taxes on working poor parents and reducing access to health care for low-income women and their families.

The Assembly is prepared to work cooperatively to advance responsible education reforms, but here is what we won’t do: We won’t cast blame on teachers. 

Two Saturdays ago, I, along with a thousand or more New Jerseyans, attended funeral services for Hassan Carter, a 37-year-old teacher who spent his last 14 years on this earth teaching at Newark’s Malcolm X Shabazz High School in addition to serving as head basketball coach.

Coach Carter, as he was affectionately known, worked with some of the most challenged students in the system, providing mentorship, guidance and, in some instances, parenting.  On December 28, during the first quarter of a game he was coaching, he suffered a brain aneurysm.   He was rushed to the hospital, underwent surgery, but did not survive.

He closed his eyes January 1st … one hour after the New Year was ushered in.

His principal recalled that the two of them had entered into a pact with one another: “No Days Off.”

Coach Carter was such a dedicated educator that he took no days off … even when he did not feel well.

He had not been feeling well, but deferred taking a day off to see his doctor because he had made a commitment to prioritize the needs of his students above his own.

Ladies and Gentlemen … teachers are not the enemy.

Job creation is another area where our work is incomplete.

Smart initiatives such as the bipartisan job creation bills passed by the Legislature last session are what can help position New Jersey to succeed economically.

Unfortunately, many of those bills were vetoed, some more than once, such as the Back to Work NJ bill.

Two years ago, as the state welcomed a new Governor, I said that we hoped to work in partnership with him to further our shared goal of making this state the best it can be.  I emphasized that adversarial partisanship does not solve problems.

This time around, I’m going to rephrase my sentiment:

I trust and expect that we will work in partnership with the Governor and his Administration.

I trust and expect that we will see more cooperation in the months ahead.

After all, with unemployment hovering above nine percent – a figure higher than the national average and that of our neighbors –  we cannot afford to do anything but work together to create long- term employment opportunities.

Now I do want to acknowledge the Administration’s efforts to provide tax credit incentives to businesses, but these endeavors on their own will not get New Jersey back to work.

Senate President Sweeney and I made it our priority to get legislation passed to extend federal unemployment benefits until February 29, 2012, two months after they were set to expire. The bill also includes a trigger that will automatically extend the benefits at the state level should the federal government extend them again at any future date.

The benefits will help in the short term but we must recognize that significant numbers of our residents will never be able to return to occupations they once held.  Our state needs to fill that frightening void and work to directly connect our unemployed women and men with new and emerging growth industries.

I believe this is a perfect opportunity for the Commissioners who run our state agencies to meet that challenge.  From their vantage points, they would have a snapshot of our state’s needs, and our weaknesses and strengths. 

Let me now address property taxes.

We made great strides toward property tax reform, only to see some of that progress wiped out by state aid and rebate cuts.

Let’s continue targeting this painful and regressive tax, but let’s not take one step forward and one step back.

That will do nothing to control the most painful tax in this state for middle-class families.

Indeed, we must finally move past the failed mantra that tax cuts for millionaires are more important than property tax relief for working families and seniors.

It’s basic fairness to ask the most fortunate among us to provide a bit more to help our disappearing middle-class, particularly during this economic crisis.

In these difficult times, we’ve seen our working class, our seniors and our residents with disabilities bearing the heaviest burden.

Ladies and Gentlemen, a call for shared sacrifice should include all residents of New Jersey.

This is not meant to vilify millionaires.

We celebrate successful men and women.

But the truth is the demanding sacrifices of the past two years have been placed squarely on the shoulders of the middle-class and the poor.

We are committed to fairness.  This is something we will not waver on.

I can say right here and right now that I will once again be posting legislation to ask for shared sacrifice from the wealthiest in our state to help provide property tax relief to middle-class families.

It is the right thing to do.

And as we seek true shared sacrifice, let us again remember how heavily the burden has been placed on those lowest on the economic ladder.

1.4 million low-income workers across the country started the new year with a minimum-wage increase, but not in New Jersey.

Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington all increased their minimum wages, providing workers help with the increasing cost of living and boosting their state economies.

It’s time for New Jersey to do the same.

Let’s begin the discussion by accepting the 2009 recommendation of the New Jersey Minimum Wage Advisory Commission to increase the minimum wage to eight dollars and fifty cents [$8.50] per hour and establish an automatic annual increase based on the increase in the consumer price index.

I expect the Assembly will move on such legislation in the coming weeks. 

Now I know some people will call this a burden on businesses, but recent studies by the National Employment Law Project show minimum wage increases do not cost jobs.

In fact, this is economic stimulus.

And this is a recognition that thousands of households in New Jersey are struggling to subsist on minimum wage jobs that do not allow them to support their families.

The National Employment Law Project has noted that minimum wage workers are most likely to cycle their money back into the economy.

This is economic stimulus that doesn’t come in the form of more debt or increased spending.

And at a time when some presidential candidates are saying poor people should be demanding jobs and not welfare, this proposal is about livable wages for the lowest-income earners.

Quite simply, we should all support economic stimulus, increased consumer spending and livable wages, and that’s what a minimum wage increase would accomplish for New Jersey.

I spoke earlier about the poverty that our children and families face in urban areas like Newark, Paterson, Elizabeth, Plainfield, Trenton and Camden. 

Let us join forces to address the unique challenges facing our major cities.  We can and must use legislation and policy to change the paradigm. 

Let’s be clear that I’m not talking about an urban versus suburban divide or, to put it more simply, an “us” versus “them” mentality.  When a majority suffers, the ripple effects have a negative impact on the entire State of New Jersey in both simple and complicated ways.  And when a major city triumphs, those effects can only be positive ones.

For example, creating transit hubs with attendant development, as the Legislature did in the prior session, is a down payment in urban investment that will have dividends for generations to come.

We must also work together to jumpstart our real estate market, making families once again confident that they can realize the American dream of homeownership.

But we are not just committed to economic fairness.

We are also committed to social fairness.

New Jersey has a civil union law, but all of the evidence has shown us that it falls far short in providing true equality. 

Civil unions send a message to the public that same-sex couples and their families are not equal to married couples in the eyes of the law.

It sends a message that same-sex couples are not good enough to warrant equality.

This is the same message we heard from Jim Crow segregation laws.

Separate treatment was wrong then. Separate treatment is wrong now.

And that’s why I am committed this session to posting marriage equality legislation.

Let’s stand for what’s right.

Let’s stand for every family.

Let’s stand for equality.

Whether it’s on social issues, economic issues, or any other policy debate…there can be no other way.

Our state’s diversity has long been our strength.  Let’s finally embrace all of our sisters and brothers. 

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The time is always right to do the right thing.”

I want to close with a special thank you to my mother, Jennie Oliver, and my late father, Charles, who have served as my biggest supporters and teachers.  And to my brother and all the other members of my family and extended family, I am grateful for your presence in my life.

To the people of the State of New Jersey: We are your public servants and, in this Two Hundred and Fifteenth Legislative Session, from one end of the state to the other, our priority will continue to be your needs.

Thank you very much.”



  Speaker Oliver: discussion on education reform must focus on poor, urban districts; wants millionaire’s tax