Morning Digest: Dec. 17, 2013

Unimpressed with self-funders, Vietnam veteran jumps into CD3 race

A medic in Vietnam, whose house took a horrendous beating during Hurricane Sandy before he rebuilt if with his bare hands, Berkeley Council President James J. Byrnes wants to be the next congressman from CD3.

To that end, he officially entered the fray tonight.

“I’m running,” said Byrnes, who was born and raised in Ocean County and has watched with some sense of increasing dismay the parade of non-district residents emerge as contenders to succeed U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R-3).

He thinks he has an edge on the goods.

Byrnes received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service as a medic in Vietnam.

For 27 years prior to his retirement as a union carpenter, he belonged to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and served as vice president of Local 2018 for four years.

Byrnes also served as president of the Berkeley Township Board of Education and a member of the Ocean County Board of Appeals. (Pizarro/PolitickerNJ)

Assembly agricultural panel approves extensions of Right to Farm Act protections to commercial beekeepers

TRENTON – With bottles of Garden State honey samples arrayed on the table before them, the members of the state Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee looked at the matter before them and said in one voice: sweet.

The committee voted unanimously 5-0 to extend state Right of Farm Act protections to New Jersey’s commercial beekeepers, sending the bill on for a vote in the full Assembly.

The Right to Farm Act, passed by the state Legislature in 1983 and amended in 1998, protects commercial farmers from public and private nuisance actions and unduly restrictive municipal regulations. (Bonamo/PolitickerNJ)

Andrew Cuomo backs Chris Christie version on bridge

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to the defense of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been facing a growing controversy over lane closures in the Garden State, supporting the explanation that the closures were for a traffic study.

“I’m sure it is as Gov. Christie says it is,” said Cuomo, as quoted by the New York Daily News, following his Cabinet meeting Monday.

In what has become a growing headache for Christie, leading to the resignations of two of his Port Authority appointees, lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., to the George Washington Bridge were reduced from three to one in September, causing heavy traffic. Democrats claimed Christie ordered the closures as a form of political payback, a charge which Christie denied during a Friday press conference. Christie instead said he was unaware of the closures until the media coverage and said the closures were the result of a poorly planned traffic study, as previously stated by a Christie-appointed Port official. (McCalmont/Politico)

NSA ruling fallout hits White House

In legal terms, a federal judge’s decision Monday questioning the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s massive call-tracking program seems almost certain to have no practical significance.

In political terms, it comes at a critical time for the NSA and President Barack Obama.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s ruling that the NSA’s metadata program appears to violate the Fourth Amendment was issued just three days after a review group established by Obama delivered its report proposing more than 40 changes to the federal government’s surveillance programs. (Gerstein/Politico)

N.J. Democrats want to restrict background, credit checks during hiring process

Legislation making it easier for people with criminal histories or poor credit to find jobs passed an Assembly committee Monday.

Under one bill, an employer could not ask about an applicant’s criminal history until after the candidate has received a conditional job offer. Only then could the employer conduct a background check or ask whether the person had ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. If the person does have a record, the legislation also restricts what types of crime can warrant an employer rescinding the job offer.

Another bill bars employers from conducting credit checks on current or prospective employees, although it makes exceptions for certain jobs related to finance, management or security.

Both bills passed the Assembly Labor Committee along party lines. While Democrats argued the measures would help people get a leg up, business groups and Republicans said the requirements would bury companies in paperwork and open them up to lawsuits. (Linhorst/The Record)  

N.J. lawmakers advance bill banning special education placement bonuses for superintendents

Lawmakers worried that public school superintendents could be swayed by financial gain approved legislation Monday to ban certain bonuses.

The bill would bar school districts from paying bonuses to superintendents who keep special education students in their local program rather then sending them to an out-of-district program – which could be more expensive, but may better suit the student.

“By prohibiting bonuses for special education placements, we will ensure that practitioners are not tempted to make decisions strictly for monetary gain,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “The goal of any school district is to find the best programming and supports for a child, whether it is in-district or out-of-district.”

The legislation comes after the Asbury Park Press reported some school districts offer such bonuses for their superintendents. In Freehold Regional High School District, the paper found a superintendent received a $5,910 bonus for reducing the number of students sent to out-of-district special education programs.

“Children with learning disabilities need to be enrolled in the programs that best meet their educational needs. Any contractual agreement that creates an incentive to place a child in a particular program, whether it is in-district or otherwise, is cause for concern,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said.

The measure passed unanimously in the Senate Education Committee, and it now heads to the full Senate. An Assembly version passed that chamber unanimously in June. (Linhorst/The Record)  

Unhappy with BPU, Legislature Looks to Get Offshore Wind Moving

Proposal would have offshore wind projects financed by state’s four utilities, with upfront investments recovered from consumers

The Legislature is trying to jumpstart offshore wind farms, a move spurred by frustration with the Christie administration’s failure to adopt regulations to make it happen in New Jersey.

A bill (A-4538) introduced last Thursday by the deputy speaker of the Assembly John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) proposes to have offshore wind projects financed by the state’s four electric utilities, which would recover the money from consumers — and then some.

The legislation comes at a time when the state Board of Public Utilities has come under increasing criticism for not adopting a financing mechanism to promote offshore wind farms along the Jersey coast, a goal once strongly supported by both the Legislature and the Christie administration.

Without such a mechanism, offshore wind farms will never happen in New Jersey, according to industry experts. The BPU was supposed to adopt regulations detailing how offshore wind developers would be paid for the electricity produced by their turbines by March 2011, but still has not done so.  (Johnson/NJSpotlight)  

State’s Urban Schools Need Extensive Repairs and Expansion, Report Says  

As many as one-third of education facilities in NJ are not in compliance or up to code

With questions mounting over the slow pace of the state’s school repairs and construction, an internal report by the state Department of Education acknowledges the sorry condition of many of New Jersey’s urban schools – with as many as one-third of them not up to building code or in compliance.

The July 2013 report – “Educational Facilities Needs Assessment” (EFNA) — by the state agency’s facilities office cites an “enormous need” for repairs and expansion of facilities in the 30 school districts covered by the Abbott v. Burke court rulings that ordered more than $8 billion in school upgrades more than a decade ago.

“The 2013 EFNA continues to show enormous need in the SDA districts to address overcrowding and educational adequacy,” the report reads at one point.

The report was provided this week by the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation. The ELC said it sought and received the report under the state’s Open Public Records Act. The group maintained that state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf had failed to publicize its findings or work with Abbott districts in developing it. (Mooney/NJSpotlight)  

Congress may be asked to join NY-NJ bridge probe

TRENTON — A New Jersey state lawmaker wants Congress to investigate the agency responsible for traffic jams caused by unannounced lane closings approaching the George Washington Bridge into New York City.

Democrats claim the gridlock was an act of retribution by loyalists of Gov. Chris Christie, which the governor has denied.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County told The Associated Press she will introduce a resolution Thursday that asks Congress to investigate the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Democratic-led Senate could pass the resolution by the end of the year.

The authority’s inspector general and the Assembly Transportation Committee already are looking into the land diversions that brought Fort Lee to a standstill during the first week of school in September. But the lawmaker said Congress would bring a wider perspective to the probe since it could examine whether changes are needed in the federal legislation that created the bistate authority that operates bridges, tunnels, rail service and airports in the New York/New Jersey region.

“Congress should be looking at the law that created the Port Authority, the lack of transparency, whether the law that created the authority requires changes and that the structure of the authority needs to be amended,” said Weinberg, a Democrat.

The lane closings have created a distraction for Christie, who won re-election by 22 points in November and is seen as a strong potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The governor’s top two appointees at the authority have resigned, and he held an hour-long news conference Friday to try to manage the story. (Associated Press)  







N.J. affordable housing agency running afoul of court orders, lawsuit claims

TRENTON — Housing advocates went to court today to force New Jersey to produce a new wave of affordable homes after a decade of delays.

In a lawsuit filed today, the Fair Share Housing Center, a nonprofit group of lawyers, is calling for a court-appointed monitor to oversee the state Council on Affordable Housing, which critics say has been dragging its feet.

The council stopped holding regular meetings in 2010 and shows no signs of life despite a series of recent court decisions ordering it to get back to work, according to Kevin Walsh, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center.

The state Supreme Court recently gave the agency until Feb. 26 to write new rules that would allow affordable-housing construction to start back up in New Jersey. Walsh says COAH has already missed the first deadlines and will not be able to fulfill the court’s order by February.

“People need homes,” Walsh said. “There are a lot of people out there right now who, especially after Sandy, I’m sure they wish there were more apartments available, because they wouldn’t be paying double the rent they were paying before. I’m sure there are a lot of folks who wish that the state’s housing stock wasn’t so darn tight. This is also the result when towns adopt zoning restrictions that favor the wealthy over working folks.” (Rizzo/Star-Ledger)  







Gov. Chris Christie stars in new video highlighting Republican infighting

National Democrats are doing their best to capitalize on the minor squabbles that have beset Republicans with national aspirations.

A Holiday themed video produced by the Democratic National Committee features a compilation of shots fired between the 2016 presidential frontrunners set to Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The web video opens with a sepia toned, snow-themed card with the words “It’s the Holiday Season. A Time when Families come together,” superimposed over it, before cutting to video of a Chris Christie press conference, during which the New Jersey governor is shown lambasting Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

“Maybe Senator Paul could, you know, deal with that when he’s trying to deal with the reduction of spending on the federal side. But I doubt he would, because most Washington politicians only care about bringing home the bacon,” Christie says.

The governor was responding to a question on the war of words the two men engaged last summer after Christie said the libertarian wing of the GOP is “very dangerous.”

The video then cuts to Paul, who has several times in the months since the feud taken not-so-veiled shots at Christie.

“Is this the king of bacon talking about bacon?”  Paul is shown asking on CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.


From the Back Room


Cuomo reportedly backs Christie over GWB controversy

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports Gov. Chris Christie’s explanation for lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, according to published reports.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday Cuomo’s response earlier in the day when questioned about the controversy.

“It’s a season of loaded questions,” the WSJ reported Cuomo saying when asked whether he believed Christie’s explanation of the incident that New Jersey’s governor gave during a Friday morning news conference.

“The governor and I have a good relationship–a professional relationship and a personal relationship. The issue of the traffic study was primarily a New Jersey incident, so our basic operating agreement is, when it has to do with New Jersey, Gov. Christie handles it. When it has to do with New York, I handle it. If it’s a management issue, dealing with the Port itself, we do it jointly. But I’m sure it is as Gov. Christie says it is.” (Arco/PolitickerNJ)

Marriage equality bill held

A bill dealing with marriage equality has been held from committee today.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said of S3109 that after conferring with Lambda Legal she decided to hold the bill for the moment.

“After conferring with Lambda Legal, the national gay rights law organization,  we have decided to pull from consideration for now the proposed legislation that would write marriage equality into law.

“The issue is still new and legally complex, and we want to be able to fully understand all the potential legal ramifications of our efforts as we work to reach our goal of bringing marriage equality firmly and permanently into our laws.” (PolitickerNJ)



Chris Christie’s nightmare traffic jam

On Sept. 9, access lanes to the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey to New York were suddenly closed. No warning was given — nothing posted days before or announced on the radio. Traffic backed up to the outskirts of Omaha (an approximation), reasonable people went mad, children were appropriately traumatized and the residents of Fort Lee, the New Jersey town at the western end of the bridge, got the gift of air pollution of the type that will, studies have shown, strike them down in later years as they venture out for the Early Bird Special. Their last words, you can be almost certain, will be, “Damn you, Chris Christie.”

The New Jersey governor has asserted that he had nothing to do with the totally capricious lane closings. As for his aides who instigated the mayhem, they insisted they were not — as alleged — getting even with the mayor of Fort Lee, the Democrat Mark Sokolich, who had failed to endorse the Republican Christie’s reelection, as some 60 other Democratic officialshad prudently done. They said the lane closings — which lasted four days — were imposed to conduct a traffic study that, oddly enough, no one knows anything about and, furthermore, cannot find. It might prove that if you close lanes, traffic will back up.

The bridge is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The governors of both states make the necessary appointments. (It’s not entirely inconceivable that New York’s Andrew Cuomo will wind up facing Christie somewhere down the road.) Inside the authority, Christie’s guys were widely viewed as his political operatives. One of them wasDavid Wildstein, the governor’s friend since high school and former mayor of their home town of Livingston, N.J . The governor parked Wildstein at the authority at$150,000 per year and apparently gave him a year’s supply of traffic cones.

Another Christie friend and political ally,Bill Baroni, was also placed at the authority. He is a former state senator and was given a salary of $290,000. In the wake of the lane closings, both he and Wildstein have resigned, apparently hoping to end the matter. But New Jersey Democrats, a creative bunch, have come to call the affair “Bridgegate” and, armed with subpoena power in the legislature, are determined — for strictly good-government reasons — to get to the bottom of this. (Cohen/Washington Post)  






U.S. teens unimpressive in global education tests

Can America compete in a global economy in the future? Results of a test given in 65 countries show U.S. 15-year-olds fell from 25th to 31st in math since 2009. In science they went from 20th to 24th and in reading from 11th to 21st. The National Center for Education Statistics analyzed the results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment. The 510,000 students in the study represent countries making up 80 percent of the world’s economy. U.S. scores have been around average since the early 2000s except in math where they are less than average. Poland and Ireland moved ahead of the U.S. The cause can’t be money spent on education as some districts in New Jersey pay upwards of $30,000 per student. Because of idiotic state Supreme Court rulings, more than 60 percent of the state’s education budget goes to just 31 of 600 school districts, a chief reason the state’s property taxes are through the roof. The Legislature sat on its hands as if the court were all three branches of government instead of just one. Anybody with two brain cells to rub together can see throwing money at the problem has made no difference in three decades. Class size doesn’t matter either except to education special interests like unions which support them largely because they mean more dues-paying teachers. We need to take a realistic look at what is working elsewhere and why we can’t measure up. (Ingle/Asbury Park Press)  

Morning Digest: Dec. 17, 2013