Weekly Roundup: Week of March 26

TRENTON – The start of the budget season cannot get under way without the usual differences in revenue projections (or to quote former President George W. Bush, “fuzzy math”) between the legislative and executive branches.

Unlike last year, the Office of Legislative Services and Gov. Chris Christie’s administration are on the same page that revenue projections for the fiscal year 2013 will be a lot rosier than in past years. The degree of rosiness, however, is where the disagreements begin, and no doubt prompted Gov. Christie to dismiss OLS as a “tool” of the Majority Democratic Party.

OLS is projecting a $537 million revenue shortfall from the amount the Christie Administration projected. The OLS budget officer, David Rosen, said that among other things the casino revenue numbers are built upon the administration’s assumption that the new state-of-the-art Revel Casino and Resort in Atlantic City will be hugely successful.

While Republicans quickly noted that in the context of a nearly $32 billion proposed budget a $538

million discrepancy doesn’t seem like an awful lot, Democrats could not help but take notice of

another difference from what Christie promised; reducing the reliance on non-recurring revenues,

or so-called one-shot gimmicks.

Last fiscal year, the administration said, it successfully weaned the state from using trust and dedicated funds to close up budget gaps, at least when compared to the last year of the Corzine Administration.

But it’s projected to see a big jump in the reliance of such revenues – at least dollar-wise – from the current fiscal year, going up from $90 million to $642 million, according to OLS estimates.

Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff defended the amount, saying it was still below what past administrations relied on.

Transportation Transparency

Up north, we have the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey depicted as the transportation

agency plagued by cronyism, rampant overspending, and bloated paychecks and benefits.

The transportation agency on the other side of the state is the Delaware River Port Authority. And Comptroller Matthew Boxer’s report released Thursday suggests it may as well be PANYNJ’s twin.

The report showed similar problems such as cronies getting free EZ pass access, the use of toll payer funds for lavish parties, spending money on economic development projects that had nothing to do with DRPA’s functions, and setting up a charitable fund in which the board members stood to benefit.

The Comptroller did point out, though, that in the wake of the investigation, the DRPA has begun

to correct the problems.

Over the past 10 years, more than $1.5 million in commissions derived from the placement of DRPA

insurance policies was shared among disclosed and undisclosed insurance brokers in a series of

“ambiguous and non-transparent dealings. The commissions were shared regardless of whether the

brokers actually performed any corresponding services for the DRPA.”

The report also talked of a relationship between two huge insurance companies, Willis, and Conner-Strong, which is run by George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic power broker.

Both insurance companies put out separate statements saying all  the actions depicted in the Comptroller report were legal.

Higher education and name-calling 

The apparently emotional issue of the proposed absorption of Rutgers University-Camden by Rowan

University to create a premiere South Jersey research university is not only dividing Republicans and Democrats (as evidenced by Christie calling nemesis, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, “a hack”), but Democrats as well, particularly in South Jersey.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and fellow politicians from that region called on Lautenberg to get the facts instead of being critical and trying to score political points.

“It is deeply regrettable that he’s trying to settle old political scores at the expense of the students and parents who deserve the very best educational opportunities we can offer,” they said in an open

letter.

“We respectfully call on Sen. Lautenberg to do the right thing, to put aside his personal political grievances and work for the best interests of the people he was elected to serve. His personal feelings should not stand in the way of a serious, mutually respectful discussion of this highly important issue.”

Funding of schools

The Education Department was under the scrutiny of the Senate Budget Committee.

DOE Officials said the fiscal year 2013 budget puts more state funding toward many school

districts and calls for language changes regarding how attendance is measured, among other things, for a more equitable funding mechanism.

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf made the point, as he and others have made many times before, that funding alone is not the answer to what ails the schools. Rather it should be coupled with strong policies to make sure students are receiving the best education they possibly can.

Gaming

On the same day that Gov. Christie was applauding the new casino in Atlantic City, Revel, as being instrumental in the hoped-for revitalization of that city’s gaming business, a Democratic Party leader sought to draw the spotlight north.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and some other fellow Democratic Assembly members called for public hearings into whether casino gaming should be placed at the Meadowlands.

This drew a huge outcry of opposition from not only Christie, but southern Jersey Republicans and Oliver’s fellow Democrats, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, who made it clear that the upper chamber was not planning any hearings into casino gaming at the Meadowlands.

The message from all of these opponents was clear: The state’s attention should be focused on Atlantic City for now; exploring options at the Meadowlands would be an unnecessary distraction.

 

 

 

 

Weekly Roundup: Week of March 26