Morning Digest: Dec. 13, 2013

The Shavar shift: Jeffries campaign in Newark appears to gain traction with North and South Jersey players

NEWARK – On the front lines of the four-man Newark mayoral race, so far the most shots have been fired by competing candidates and councilmen Anibal Ramos, Jr. and Ras Baraka. The sons of the North and South Wards respectively have engaged in a grappling match in recent weeks over labor endorsements, trying to become the most union support. Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif still appears to be trying to get his campaign up to full speed.

Meanwhile, former Assistant Attorney General Shavar Jeffries has reportedly been holding court.

Several Democratic sources have told that Jeffries has met with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and South Jersey power broker George Norcross III to discuss his political future. These sit-downs suggest an alliance between North and South Jersey to ensure Jeffries’ victory in the May 2014 election to run the state’s largest city. (Bonamo/PolitickerNJ)  

Bergen Executive formally backs newfound Donovan fan Yudin for BCRO chair

Following a meeting of GOP party insiders this past weekend and in anticipation of Bergen County Republican Chairman Bob Yudin’s formal endorsement of her re-election, Bergen County Executive Kathe Donovan today officially backed Yudin for another term as chairman.

“I write to you today to endorse Bob Yudin for Bergen County Republucan Chairman and to thank him for his endorsement of my re-election as County Executive,” Donovan wrote to party members. “2014 will be a critical year for the Republican Party here in Bergen County. To accomplish our goals we must stand together united.”

Donovan acknowledged that she and Yudin have had their differences. (Pizarro/PolitickerNJ)  

Report: Chris Christie calls Andrew Cuomo over traffic flap

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie complained in a phone call with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that a Port Authority official has been wading too deeply into controversial and potentially politically explosive lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, according to a report Thursday.

The issue involves bridge toll lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., that were cut from three to one in September, causing a massive traffic backups.

Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey have accused Christie of ordering the closures to punish Fort Lee’s mayor, a Democrat, for not endorsing his reelection bid for governor. Christie’s campaign has denied the charge, and the governor recently joked about it when asked at a press conference. “I worked the cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones,” Christie said, according to The Star-Ledger.

In the phone call this week that was first reported Thursday in The Wall Street Journal, Christie told the New York governor that the Cuomo-appointed executive director of Port Authority, which both states have joint control of, has been pressing too much into the lane closures. The Journal said its report was based on a person familiar with the matter.

“The Governor speaks regularly with Governor Cuomo on any number of mutual-interest topics. Those conversations are private,” a spokesman for Christie told POLITICO in an email. (McCalmont/Politico)  

House passes bipartisan budget deal

 After a tumultuous and politically divisive year, the House ended 2013 on a rare bipartisan note by passing a budget deal supported by a nearly equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

 The chamber voted 332-94 to approve the two-year budget deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The legislation won the support of 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats. It now heads to the Senate, where it will likely pass next week. President Barack Obama signaled he would sign the bill into law. (Sherman/Politico)  




Competing Open-Space Funding Schemes Could Leave Program Broke

Lawmakers, advocates line up behind stable source of funding or bond issue on the ballot — with no compromise in sight

From perhaps one perspective, yesterday counted as a good day for the environmental movement.

In both the Senate and the Assembly, legislative committees advanced measures that would create new funds to protect open space and farmland, as well as preserve the state’s historic structures.

The only problem is that the approaches taken by the respective panels are at odds, with neither side seemingly expressing any interest in compromising. If no one budges, it could leave the state’s highly popular open-space preservation program with little or no money to dish out in the coming year.

In the Assembly Budget Committee, a measure to put a $200 million open-space bond issue on the ballot in November easily cleared the panel, even as its supporters conceded it was a stop-gap measure and would only provide funding for one year.

In the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the panel, revived a slightly modified resolution (SCR-165) that would ask voters in the fall to approve a constitutional amendment dedicating up to $200 million a year, or 2.4 percent of state sales tax revenue, whichever is less, over the next 30 years. The measure would not take effect until 2015. (Johnson/NJSpotlight)  

Christie Opposes Import of Medical Marijuana, But Democrats Still Push Bill

Measure would allow patients to acquire medicinal pot from sources in other states

Gov. Chris Christie has expressed opposition to a bill allowing New Jersey patients to bring in medical marijuana from other states, but that hasn’t stopped Democratic legislators from pressing forward with the measure.

Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union) emphasized yesterday that the bill, A-4537/S-3108, wouldn’t expand eligibility for use of the substance, which is the grounds that Christie gave earlier this month for rejecting the bill.

Christie has said he is “done” expanding the medical marijuana program, alleging that supporters are seeking to ultimately legalize marijuana in New Jersey.

As recently as September, Christie signed a measure that expanded the number of plant strains treatment centers can grow and allowed children to take an ingestible form of medical marijuana. (Kitchenman/NJSpotlight)  

House approves defense bill dealing with sexual assault

WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly approved a comprehensive defense policy bill Thursday that aims to stem the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military, cover the cost of combat pay for the nation’s fighters, and fund new aircraft and ships.

The strong bipartisan vote — 350-69 — puts pressure on the Senate to act before it adjourns next week.

Reflecting the drawdown in Afghanistan and reduced defense spending, the bill would authorize $552.1 billion for the regular budget plus $80.7 billion for conflicts overseas in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

It represents a compromise worked out by the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services committees after a similar bill stalled in the Senate just before Thanksgiving. (Cassata/Associated Press)  

College tuition bill posing dilemma for Christie

Legislators are setting up a showdown with Governor Christie over whether to provide in-state tuition rates and state financial aid to some students at New Jersey’s public colleges and universities who are in the country illegally.

A bill that would provide such benefits moved a step closer to landing on the governor’s desk Thursday, over the objections of Republican lawmakers who urged a compromise measure. Christie has said he won’t sign the bill that was approved.

The Legislature appears to be forcing Christie’s hand, making him either veto a measure popular with Latino voters or sign a bill that would alienate conservative Republicans — two groups he would need in a presidential run.

The bill, which the Senate passed last month, moved out of the budget committee Thursday on a party-line vote. It heads to the full Assembly next week.

Christie has said he supports so-called tuition equality, but opposes allowing the students to be eligible for state aid.

The bill would apply to students who have lived in New Jersey for at least three years and graduated from a high school in the state. Many such students came here as children and have lived in New Jersey for years. Because they are living here illegally, they are not eligible for federal or state financial aid or in-state tuition, which is usually half what non-residents pay. (Alex/The Record)  




New Aetna plans will force thousands in N.J. to switch

Small businesses and individuals with Aetna health insurance will need to choose new plans next year, as the insurer announced it would not renew this year’s policies after Jan. 1.

About 90,000 small-group customers and 2,600 people who buy their own policies from the Connecticut-based Aetna are affected.

The insurer is the second in New Jersey to decide against renewing the old policies next year, despite President Obama’s encouragement to do so. The president, under fire after insurers issued cancellation notices to millions of consumers nationwide with individual and small-group plans in order to comply with his signature law, said last month that he would not enforce certain requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

Earlier this week, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey announced that it would not extend the pre-reform plans, a decision affecting 500,000 people. Oxford Health Plans of New Jersey, on the other hand, is working with brokers and state regulators to extend its 2013 coverage next year, according to a spokeswoman for the parent company, UnitedHealthcare.

Aetna had already developed new health plans that comply with the health care law’s standards for comprehensive benefits and no lifetime or annual caps, and it is sticking with those. (Washburn/The Record)  

N.J. Senate approves bill to allow transgender people to obtain new birth certificate

TRENTON — A state Senate panel today approved a bill that would require the state Health Department to issue a new birth certificate for people who have gone through the clinical process of altering their gender.

State law since 1984 has required the state Health Department to issue a new birth certificate to people who have undergone gender reassignment surgery.

Not every transgender person undergoes surgery because of the expense and the health risks involved with a major surgery, said Joseph Vitale, chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the bill.

Some opt for hormone replacement therapy, supporters of the bill said.

This bill would require a new birth record for people who have undergone “clinically appropriate treatment for the purpose of gender transition, based on contemporary medical standards, or that the person has an intersex condition.” The person’s licensed health care provider would have to sign a form vouching the treatment had taken place, according to the bill. (Livio/Star-Ledger)  



Gun owners again take on Sweeney during second Twitter townhall

Senate President Steve Sweeney was again barraged by gun owners during his second Twitter Thursday today, but this time chose to answer at least some of the questions they posed.

Last week, seven posters inundated Sweeney with questions on gun control and second amendment rights, but the Senate President answered just one.

Sweeney took to the computer again today, fielding queries on taxes, education, marriage equality and even arm wrestling, in addition to answering some of the dozens of questions on guns.

“Senator Sweeney, is there still a push for #MarriageEquality to be on the books, even though it is now law in NJ?” asked Twitter user Kevin M. Levy.

Though he answered, he was non-committal about the path forward.

“I’ve been having ongoing discussions with @GSEquality; Sen. Weinberg to figure out the best way to move forward. Stay tuned,” Sweeney, who tweets from the handle @NJSenatePres, answered.

The Senate posted a bill earlier this week to put a marriage equality law on the books, but it’s unknown how much support there is for the measure.

Several reporters got in on the act, asking questions about the DREAM Act, the Port Authority lane closure controversy and the potential for a tax cut.

On taxes, Sweeney said the Senate will keep an eye on revenues as the year progresses before making a decision on the tax cut Gov. Chris Christie will likely propose in February. (Isherwood/  

From the Back Room




American Hustle, FBI sheiks and how Chris Smith got to Congress

The upcoming Hollywood movie American Hustle delves into the seedy side of politics, which, yes, means that it’s set in – of all places – New Jersey.

Set for release on Dec. 20th, the film features a dramatization of events around the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which ultimately toppled U.S. Senator Harrison A. Williams (D-NJ) on bribery charges.

U.S. Rep. Frank Thompson (D-NJ) was another political casualty, framed by an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik.

The scandal-mangled Thompson lost his 1980 re-election bid to Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, the sitting dean of New Jersey’s Congressional Delegation. (PolitickerNJ)  

Richard Sullivan, first DEP commissioner, dies at 86

Richard J. Sullivan, who served as New Jersey’s first Department of Environmental Protection commissioner in 1970, has passed away.  He was 86.

Sullivan, who ran DEP until 1974, also chaired the Pinelands Commission and oversaw the Green Acres Bond Act in 1972. He also worked to establish Liberty State Park.

“As the state’s first DEP Commissioner he pioneered many of New Jersey’s most important state environmental programs. Many of these programs were national models picked up by many states and even the federal government later,” said N.J. Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel in a release mourning Mr. Sullivan’s passing. (PolitickerNJ)





Bipartisan budget compromise is probably the best we can hope for

The bipartisan budget plan presented yesterday in Congress leaves us with mixed feelings. It is a step back from the brink, a sign that Republican leaders have little appetite for another damaging budget showdown. But it probably means that more than 1 million Americans will face destitution after losing unemployment benefits one week after Christmas.

The hard fact is that it’s the best deal available. Republicans in control of the House are on the warpath to reduce spending on programs for low-income families. And with no deal, the extended unemployment benefits would expire anyway.

This compromise was hammered out by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who made himself famous in 2010 by proposing a long-term budget deal that savaged low-income programs, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Given that current law imposes mindless spending cuts across the board according to sequestration rules, any agreement is bound to be an improvement. This one includes $63 billion in “sequester relief” and offsets that with $85 billion in savings, resulting in a net deficit reduction when measured against current law.

It includes no tax hikes, but does increase fees on airline travelers, requires greater contributions to health and pension plans from some federal workers, and restores some of the most irrational cuts in domestic spending, such as money devoted to scientific research. As for the unemployed, Democrats will have another shot to extend benefits in January when Republicans will need their votes to pass a farm bill. (Star-Ledger Editorial Board)  

Morning Digest: Dec. 13, 2013