Weekly Roundup: Week of July 16

TRENTON –  Speculation surrounding Gov. Chris Christie, problems at the state’s halfway houses, and frustrating news regarding the state’s job numbers pockmarked much of the past week under the Golden Dome.

It was discouraging news on the job front, even though jobs were created.

The state added a seemingly healthy 9,900 jobs, yet it saw its unemployment rate surge from an already high 9.2 percent to 9.6 percent.

The culprit, once again, was discouraged workers. When more people who had previously not been searching for jobs start searching again, the unemployment rate tends to rise, even if there’s net job growth. The month of June was no exception.

In addition, some of that job growth was due to seasonal workers.

As expected, Democrats pounced on the news as evidence that Gov. Christie’s policies are not working, while the administration highlighted the jobs created and said if more jobs keep getting added then eventually the jobless rate will drop.

Safe driving law

The latest law to be signed with the intent to make driving safer took place on Wednesday. The “Kulesh, Kubert and Bolis” Law would significantly change the law for drivers who cause accidents while using their cell phones.

The bill allows the element of recklessness as an automatic inference and will make it easier for prosecutors to target more serious penalties.

Halfway houses

The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee held a hearing Thursday on the conditions of the halfway houses in New Jersey after a New York Times report last June uncovered several incidents where residents escaped from the facilities.

Members of the Policeman’s Benevolent Association described one of the privately run facilities as a “horror show.” Many of the committee members wondered why there wasn’t more security at such centers.

It’s not clear if any legislative solutions will be made anytime soon. An Assembly committee will get to ask its questions next week.

Drug Courts

Gov. Christie signed a bill on one of the subjects he has been very passionate about: drug courts. Christie said drug courts give low-level, non-violent drug offenders a chance to live productive lives. Within five years, every county in New Jersey will have a drug court. The drug court concept enjoyed bipartisan support.

Press conference

He was out of town for much of the time, but during his first press conference in the state in some time, he played coy on two issues: whether former Board of Public Utilities President Lee Solomon will be his state Supreme Court nominee, and whether Christie will be selected to be the keynote speaker at the National Republican Party Convention in Tampa.

On the former issue, he said any reporting that Solomon would be the choice was premature and his office was still going through the vetting process.

On the latter, he said any such announcement would have to come from the Romney camp.

Rate case

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities voted unanimously to order Jersey Central Power & Light to file a base rate case following a request from the state Division of the Rate Counsel.

Officials from the utility board said it was needed for the public to determine if JCP&L is making sufficient investments in its infrastructure.

The goal of such a rate case is to allow officials to determine if the utility is providing proper service at a reasonable rate.

Pension system abuse

New Jersey’s reputation for public employees gaming the system was highlighted again in Comptroller Matthew Boxer’s most recent report.

The report found that several contractors for municipalities, such as lawyers and engineers, among other professionals, were receiving pension and health benefits when they shouldn’t be, after the Legislature passed a law in 2007 intended to end the practice. 

The report found that an “overwhelming majority” of 58 towns or school districts that were reviewed failed to comply with the law that mandated they determine whether such workers were “bona fide’’ employees or contractors.

As a result, the Comptroller referred 202 cases to the state Division of Pension and Benefits for review and removal.

The accrued pension “credits” could result in the state paying them a total of approximately $1.9 million a year in pension benefits.

“We need to work aggressively to ensure that pension credits are received only by those government employees who have earned them,” Boxer said in a statement. Weekly Roundup: Week of July 16