Weekly Roundup: Week of March 19

TRENTON – The cake was baked.

That was Gov. Chris Christie’s assessment of the open-mindedness the Democrats exhibited during their review of Supreme Court justice nominee Phil Kwon at Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that lasted more than six hours.

Fellow Republicans dismissed it as a “witch hunt,” “a spectacle” and a “mockery,” but in the end, their opinions didn’t matter. Seven out of eight Democratic Party members on the committee voted no on Kwon’s nomination.

The members said there were too many open questions regarding the excessive number of high-amount cash transactions associated with a New York liquor store business owned co-equally by Kwon’s mother and wife.

In particular, Chairman Nick Scutari wondered why so many deposits were made at a local bank that fell just below $10,000, the amount that would trigger federal reporting requirements.  

Democrat Linda Greenstein, before issuing her vote, made no secret of what she thought.

“It’s hard to believe (Kwon’s mother) deposited just under $10,000 (more than 200 times),” she said. “This was structuring, plain and simple, and violates the law.”

Gov. Christie slammed the Democrats, saying they were more motivated with pleasing their base – labor unions – than doing what was best for the state.

But Scutari defended the decision.

The hearing lasted so long that the other nominee for the state’s highest court – Bruce Harris – was postponed until a later date.

Money for education 

When he wasn’t immersed with business in the Statehouse, Gov. Chris Christie stayed the course on pushing for education reform. He announced various programs from his proposed fiscal year 2013 budget that will have more funding than prior years, all of which are intended to help students from mostly urban districts get a leg up on post-secondary education.

 The goodies include $1 million toward the Governor’s Urban Scholarship program, a $37.5 million increase in Tuition Aid Grants for low-income students, and $38.3 million in Equal Opportunity Funds.

In laying out those proposals, Christie and Higher Education Secretary Rochelle Hendricks said it was important that those with less means have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream and provide opportunities for a good-paying job and career.

On Monday, at a Kearny town hall meeting, Christie talked about the need for reforming education, with his proposals for school choice front and center.

On a related note, Christie sounded blunt and confident on what the final outcome will be regarding the controversial plan involving Rutgers University-Camden and Rowan University.

“They are going to merge,” he said.

Fighting the waiver rule 

Calling it “unconstitutional and unconscionable,” N.J. Sierra Club Executive Director Jeff Tittel and 27 environmental and labor groups filed a lawsuit in the Appellate Division that calls for preventing the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed waiver rule from being implemented.

The rule would enable applicants to skirt certain regulations that would have normally held up projects. But Tittel and others claim the rule is overly vague, would be ripe for abuse, and violates the separation between the legislative and executive branches.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin has defended the rule as a common-sense measure intended to prevent cumbersome regulations from blocking projects. He said all applications will be thoroughly evaluated to make sure that they don’t compromise the quality of life.

Jobs and revised numbers 

New Jersey’s employment picture remains a work in progress despite Gov. Chris Christie’s pronouncements that the Garden State is on a comeback.

The state netted 8,700 jobs (a gain of 9,700 private sector but a loss of 1,000 public sector jobs), but the unemployment rate didn’t budge, remaining at 9.0 percent. That’s well above the national average of 8.3 percent.

That news, however, was obscured by reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about the number of mass layoffs (entailing some 66,000 jobs) that took place last year, erasing much of the job growth that was initially thought to have taken place. Also, a revised report was issued on the state’s employment numbers from January, which included 4,500 fewer jobs than what was initially determined.

Bond refunding 

In a move that could save millions, the Joint Budget Oversight Committee approved a bond-refunding measure for the Garden State Preservation Trust.

The measure approved unanimously is intended to take advantage of low interest rates.

For fiscal year 2012, the net savings in debt service would be approximately $28 million, according to the State Office of Public Finance.

Budget pleas

More organizations, agencies and departments pleaded with Budget Committee members about the need to restore funding, or to maintain the current level for their various programs, in the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget.

Some witnesses said they’re still owed funds.

The N.J. League of Municipalities kept up its mission to get their towns’ share of money back from the state in the form of energy tax receipts.

Officials said the state is not returning the full amount collected to the local towns and cities.

Art Ondish, mayor of Mount Arlington, who heads the lobbying group, once again pointed out the towns missed out on $505 million last year.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer, (D-36), Passaic, asked that if the money were to be returned, that it be earmarked for property tax relief. Ondish agreed with that idea.

Getting the money out of the state’s hands received bipartisan support at the hearing, as Assemblyman Jay Webber, (R-26), Whippany, proposed that the money be sent directly to the taxpayers from the state.

Weekly Roundup: Week of March 19