Weekly Roundup: Week of Feb. 6

TRENTON – The verbal battle between Gov. Chris Christie and the state’s largest teachers union got more personal than usual this past week when the tough-talking governor and the similarly-statured head of the N.J. Education Association, Vince Giordano, called on one another to resign from their plum positions. 

The tiff stemmed from a controversial claim Giordano made about urban kids’ misfortune in not having access to a quality public education system. His representatives later said he was misunderstood. 

Christie then knocked Giordano for his insensitivity and exorbitant salary.

But beyond the usual politics, there were some more substantive educational issues that took center stage. The state’s application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law was approved by the federal Education Department.

The flexibility is meant to provide some leeway from various mandates, in exchange for  raising standards, improving accountability, and undertaking other reforms to strengthen teacher effectiveness.

Foreclosure settlements

New Jersey stands to receive more than $800 million thanks to a multistate settlement over alleged foreclosure abuses, fraud and unacceptable business practices by the country’s largest mortgage providers.

Among other things, New Jersey borrowers will receive an estimated $660 million in benefits from loan term modifications and other direct relief. New Jersey borrowers who lost their home to foreclosure between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011, and suffered servicing abuse will qualify for $12.5 million in cash payments.

The value of refinanced loans to New Jersey borrowers who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth will be an estimated $89.5 million.

The state will also receive a direct payment of $75.5 million, which will help pay for various state housing programs.

Sick Pay

Unused sick day cash-out reform remained a hot topic, as the latest attempt at fixing the problem was proposed in the form of legislation from Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford.

Sweeney’s bill, S1564, outlaws supplemental compensation for accumulated unused sick leave earned after the bill’s effective date.

Sweeney’s bill followed in the wake of a prolonged disagreement between Christie and Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), Wood-Ridge, who fought the administration over cash value for the days.

Gov. Chris Christie has held firm in his opposition to Sarlo, arguing that the Democrats’ initiative was arbitrarily capping the cash payout for unused sick days. Christie maintained a “zero means zero” policy.

Sarlo originally argued that employees should be able to carry forward $15,000 in unused sick leave cash value, and then following Christie’s objection reduced the proposed amount to $7,500.

In the meantime, police and other public officials have capitalized on sick day payouts in Jersey City, Paterson, Parsippany and Elmwood Park, among other towns.

Christie expressed optimism about the compromise bill when asked about it at his Westfield town hall.

Port Authority

The continuing boondoggle that many suspect the Port Authority is was confirmed in a way when an audit was released Wednesday that showed it was responsible for $4 billion in overruns related to the World Trade Center project.

The audit called the agency a “long-standing bureaucracy that is inherently resistant to change, lacks effective collaboration between its strategic businesses, and would benefit from the effective development of a shared support services function.”

The Democrats have proposed a series of transparency bills for the bi-state agency, and they were released by the Assembly Transportation Committee a week ago. But Christie remained coy when asked what position he will take on them.

Supreme Court nominees

The leak of questionnaires filled out by Christie’s state Supreme Court nominees Philip Kwon and Bruce Harris had many Republicans crying foul and calling for an investigation into the source of the leaks.

“The party or parties responsible for the leak of information provided by Bruce Harris and Phil Kwon on a confidential basis has not only damaged the integrity of the confirmation process, but has also called into question their own fitness to serve on a committee which routinely handles sensitive and deeply personal information pertaining to appointments,” said Minority Leader Tom Kean, (R-21), Westfield, in a release.

“It is now clear that one or more members of the Senate cannot discharge their duties in an impartial manner, and are attempting to prevent the Senate from giving these nominees due process based on personal bias.”

Medical marijuana

The slow-going state medicinal marijuana program may get a boost.

At least, that’s the hope with two bills that were introduced last week in the name of the Right to Farm Act.

Bill S1352 by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, (D-22), Linden, and A2115 by Assemblymen  Declan O’Scanlon, (R-12), Little Silver, and Reed Gusciora, (D-15), Trenton, would make sure no county or municipality may prohibit or restrict the cultivation or production of marijuana for this purpose. Many planning and zoning boards have blocked the establishment of such facilities, leaving supporters of medical marijuana frustrated.

As part of the bills’ provisions, there would have to be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week security presence where the marijuana is being grown.

Power plants

While it is taking on one power plant in Pennsylvania for producing too much air pollution, the Christie Administration broke ground on another plant in South Jersey,

The state Department of Environmental Protection filed a motion in federal court against a Portland, Pa., plant for challenging a federal EPA ruling, which said it released an enormous amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2), plus mercury and other contaminants into the air across the Delaware River and directly onto residents of Warren County.

In a related matter, a new plant in South Jersey will be created and up and running by 2014 that will produce fewer emissions than older ones, according to the state.

The groundbreaking of the new 738-megawatt LS Power Company natural gas-fired and electrical power plant occurred in West Deptford, and is expected to create some 600 construction jobs.

Once the plant is constructed, there are plans to create 25 permanent jobs in operations and maintenance with an estimated annual payroll of $2 million.  

Try, try again

As is customary in Trenton, some bills never die and some of them were resurrected again this past week. They include bills regarding young hunters, shared services in schools, and fracking.

As Sen. Ray Lesniak once said, “hope springs eternal.”

 

 

Weekly Roundup: Week of Feb. 6