Morning Digest: Dec. 18, 2013

Bergen GOP Rivals Donovan and Yudin declare peace pact for 2014 campaign

HACKENSACK – On a snowy day in Bergen County’s capital, Hackensack still did not freeze over. But for many political observers of Bergen’s strife-torn Republican Party, Hell did.

Longtime GOP rivals Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan and Bergen Republican Chairman Bob Yudin stood together in front of a crowd of close to 50 people at Bergen GOP headquarters in Hackensack and declared a truce, proclaiming unity in the face of what could be a bruising 2014 re-election campaign for Donovan.

“Kathe Donovan has been in Bergen County elective office for many years, and her name recognition and record of service to the residents of our 70 municipalities is unparalleled,” Yudin said. “We don’t always agree on the issues, but that’s what makes the Republican Party stronger – respect for our differences. I support Kathe Donovan for her re-election to County Executive, and ask that all Republicans come together and do the same. Only together will we win in November.

“This has been something that needed to be done,” Yudin added. “The unity of our party in Bergen County is paramount above all. There is so much at stake this November.” (Bonamo/PolitickerNJ)  

Trio of bills confront ‘knockout game’ assaults

TRENTON – Lawmakers want to deliver a KO to the so-called “knockout game,’’ in which an assailant tries to knock a victim out with one punch or kick.

Three bills have been introduced in the Assembly this week, all of which would increase penalties for such a crime.

Republicans Jon Bramnick and Ron Dancer introduced A4549.

Another bill, A4558, has bipartisan backing: Republicans John DiMaio and Anthony Bucco with Democrat Craig Coughlin.

And a third bill, A4563, was sponsored by Democrats Joe Cryan and Gordon Johnson.

The first two bills clarify that the “knockout game’’ is a third-degree crime. That is normally punishable by a term of imprisonment of three to five years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. (Mooney/PolitickerNJ)  

Senate poised to pass budget deal

he Senate voted Tuesday to advance a bipartisan two-year budget deal – a move that puts Capitol Hill one step closer to a thaw in the fiscal wars that have paralyzed Washington.

The chamber agreed 67-33 to cut off debate on the budget agreement reached by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) last week. Final passage is virtually guaranteed now and a vote is slated for no later than Wednesday. (Kim/Politico)  

NJ revenue shortfall improves in November; state still faces $100M hole

New Jersey’s revenue shortfall improved a bit in November, according to figures released by the Treasury Department on Tuesday, although the state still faces a hole of nearly $100 million.

So far this fiscal year, the state has taken in $98 million less than its budget anticipated — a 1.2 percent gap between Governor Christie’s budget projections and reality. That’s better than the $115 million revenue shortfall reported last month.

The tightening of that gap was largely due to better than expected corporation business tax collections, which came in $33.4 million more than projected last month. At the same time, though, income and sales tax revenues were worse than expected.

Because the state constitution requires a balanced budget, revenue shortfalls must be made up by cutting spending or making other adjustments. There are still seven months left in the state’s fiscal year, though, so there is time to make up the shortfall. (Linhorst/The Record)  

N.J. schools to try out new standardized test

Seventy percent of New Jersey’s school districts and charter schools have volunteered to take part in field testing this spring for the new state tests from PARCC — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Fifty-seven districts in Bergen County and 17 in Passaic County will participate, ranging from small, affluent suburbs such as Alpine to large cities struggling with poverty such as Paterson and Passaic.

The state Department of Education said there would be no consequences for students, teachers or schools in the trial run of the new online tests for math and English. The 19-state partnership is developing the tests, coming in spring 2015, to reflect the goals of the Common Core, a voluntary set of national standards that aim to add clarity and rigor to what children learn in each grade.

District officials have said they want to participate in the dry run of the online tests to make sure their technology works. Some parents, however, have complained that students who take the field test will spend excessive time in assessments because they will also have to take the current regimen, the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge. State officials countered that students taking the PARCC field test in March or May will take only a portion of it, and only one or two classrooms in each school will participate. (Brody/The Record)  

Federal probe of Port Authority’s GWB lane closures may shake agencies across U.S.

By making a four-day Fort Lee traffic nightmare into a federal issue, the chairman of the U.S. Senate committee that oversees transportation policy wants to send a message to toll agencies: Someone is watching you.

“We’re accustomed to port authorities who don’t think that accountability is part of their job,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Tuesday. “We have complete oversight over them.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is in Rockefeller’s sights over the closure of lanes to the George Washington Bridge — the nation’s busiest — over four days in September that snarled traffic for hours in Fort Lee.

The explanation given was a traffic study, which was later revealed to have been ordered by one of Governor Christie’s political appointees, David Wildstein. But standard procedures including notification to Fort Lee police were not followed, the authority’s executive director said he did not know of any traffic study being ordered, and Democrats believe it was retribution for Fort Lee’s mayor declining to endorse the governor’s reelection.

“Was a traffic study ever planned for this area or was the reason fabricated?” Rockefeller said Monday in one of the 19 questions attached to a letter to the Port Authority.

The Senate’s interest sparked speculation that Washington Democrats were taking an interest in the issue because it could be politically damaging to Christie, who is widely assumed to be preparing to run for president and is a leading Republican contender according to some polls. (Jackson/The Record)  

Skudera, Turning and Fama bid farewell to Tinton Falls elected life

TINTON FALLS — The last meeting of 2013 was a night of farewells, thank yous and reflection for departing officials.

Tuesday was the last meeting for Mayor Michael Skudera, Borough Administrator and mayor-elect Gerald Turning Jr., and Councilwoman Nancy Anne Fama. Turning will be sworn in as mayor next month.

Then Councilman Skudera and Fama ran with Councilman Scott Larkin as the Tinton Falls Team For Change” slate, winning election in May 2009 and defeating incumbent Mayor Peter Maclearie and newcomers Mike Stanton and Bob Harvey for the council seats. Only Larkin chose to run for re-election this year.

Tuesday, Skudera and Fama took a bit of a victory lap, citing accomplishments won by running the borough in business like way, such as keeping tax increases to the level of inflation, jump starting a dormant regular road improvement program, using technology to streamline municipal operations to save money and free up employees to do other jobs, which led to a revenue making municipal court deal with Monmouth Beach and neighboring Eatontown. (Higgs/Asbury Park Press)  

Mug shot ban headings for vote; news group adamantly opposed

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers plan to vote on legislation to make police booking photos of suspects confidential — a bill that’s opposed by the group that represents 20 daily newspapers and other media outlets serving the state.

Bill A-3906, which would make mug shots off-limits unless there is a conviction, has been scheduled by Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, D-Essex, a primary sponsor, for a vote Thursday. The proposal has yet to be taken up in the Senate. It would need approvals in both houses before it could be sent to Gov. Chris Christie for his signature.

Laws governing access to public records vary from state to state, but the proposal would make New Jersey one of the few places where newspapers and websites wouldn’t be allowed to use mug shots at the time of a booking.

The New Jersey Press Association, a media trade group, said the legislation is “contrary to New Jersey’s long-standing, strong public policy of open government, including ready access to government records.’’ (Jordan/Asbury Park Press)  





‘One Newark’ Reform Plan Proves Divisive Even Before Official Release

Superintendent’s plan calls for sweeping changes to address poor academic performance and exodus to charter schools

The public battles over Newark school closures, consolidations and other reconfigurations have started up anew.

State-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson this week has begun to unveil her “One Newark” plan for remaking what she called the “portfolio” of the city schools, as they face a growing exodus of students to charter schools while grappling with greater needs and tighter budgets.

The families and staff of 15 schools most affected by Anderson’s plan heard details at meetings held last night across the city. Another 15 affected schools are to host meetings tonight.

An internal draft of the plan appears to lay out a sweeping and complicated series of moves, ranging from transforming Weequahic High School into separate single-gender academies to recruiting charter organizations to manage low-performing elementary schools.

There are proposals for “redesigning” some schools, “dissolving” others and “re-siting” still others. But what that means is not always specified, and Anderson’s plan does not give a timeline for these changes. (Mooney/NJSpotlight)  





Supporters Seek t Make Same-Sex Marriage the Letter of the Law

Legislators and advocates look to codify NJ’s marriage equality ruling and close possible exemptions

Hundreds of same-sex couples have gotten married in New Jersey since October, when a New Jersey court ruled that the state’s civil union law violated the New Jersey Constitution’s equal protection clause. But it is unclear when — or if — the state Legislature will codify the lower-court ruling that set those marriages in motion.

Because marriage rights were conferred by Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson and not the state Supreme Court, there are concerns that the ruling could be vulnerable down the road should federal law change or Gov. Chris Christie be successful in remaking the state’s high court.

Advocates for marriage equality, however, are making it clear that they want a clean bill — meaning one that does not create new exemptions for those who are not supportive of gay marriage. For instance, they are concerned that a bill could be compromised by making exceptions for religiously affiliated groups.

Garden State Equality, one of the plaintiffs in the litigation that resulted in Jacobsen’s ruling, together with the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which represented the couples in the case, pushed state Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Raymond Lesniak (D- Union) to pull legislation — S-3109 — from consideration on Monday. The bill, which essentially updated legislation vetoed in 2012 by Gov. Chris Christie, would have codified Jacobson’s ruling and allowed existing civil unions to become marriages, while also creating a broad exemption for religious groups. (Kalet/NJSpotlight)  






NJ’s Anti-Filibuster Bill

A Republican member of the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee is fed up with what he feels is stonewalling on the part of the Democratic majority. Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Wayne, has introduced a resolution to end filibustering by Democrats on Gov. Chris Christie’s Supreme Court nominees.  

“The Senate Democrats have gone to unprecedented lengths to deny the people of New Jersey a full, diverse and balanced Supreme Court, as the High Court weighs some of the most important cases in our state’s history,” O’Toole said. “Democrats around the country have celebrated a U.S. Senate move to eliminate filibustering on certain nominees by America’s Chief Executive, and now the state Senate should be able to end the blockage of Supreme Court nominations by New Jersey’s Chief Executive.”

There is a model for O’Toole’s legislation. Recently, the U.S. Senate voted to end the use of the filibuster against most presidential nominees. O’Toole’s resolution will require that all gubernatorial nominees to the New Jersey Supreme Court receive hearings no later than 90 days from when nominated.

“This Senate just showed how easy it is to approve one of Gov. Christie’s qualified nominees, Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina, two months after his nomination date,” O’Toole explained. “No other time than since Gov. Christie was elected in 2009 has the state Senate delayed its duty to give Supreme Court nominees a hearing. Ninety days is more than enough time for us to do our jobs.” (McArdle/NJ101.5)  






Moody’s lower N.J. debt outlook to negative, citing slow recovery

TRENTON — Wall Street analysts at Moody’s Investors Service today lowered their outlook on New Jersey’s debt from stable to negative, saying the state remains hamstrung by rising costs and “a sluggish economic recovery” despite Gov. Chris Christie’s efforts.

The analysis by Moody’s warns that public workers’ retirement benefits and other costs are climbing rapidly, and that revenue is not growing fast enough to bridge the gap.

Although Moody’s gives Christie credit for taking a “proactive approach” to control pension and health benefit liabilities, the overall assessment was dire for the Republican governor at a time when his advisers are pushing for a 10 percent tax cut.

“The state will face challenges in improving its very weak liquidity position, due to the state’s sluggish economic recovery, which has hindered revenue performance,” Moody’s analysts wrote in a note to investors today. (Rizzo/Star-Ledger)  

Polls: N.J. residents would forgo higher pay for better health benefits

More than half of New Jerseyans would rather pay higher insurance premiums and co-pays to keep the doctors they know than save money and limit their options, according to a poll released today.

About 56 percent of the 802 people polled said having access to a wide array of doctors and services was more important than the 33 percent who said cheap premiums and co-pays were a priority.

Given the choice between getting paid less money or receiving a less generous health benefits package, 49 percent of New Jerseyans polled were willing to forgo better pay compared to 44 percent who were not, according to the poll by the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute and Monmouth University.

That puts the state at odds with the rest of the country. According to a June 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll, 53 percent of people under age 65 would rather get a raise compared to the 39 percent who would prefer a fat benefits package.

“It is not surprising that New Jersey health care consumers care more about access and quality issues than they do cost, although cost is obviously a consideration,” said David Knowlton, president and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, a consumer research and advocacy organization. “There are few things more important to individuals than their own health and they want to be able to select physicians they know and trust.”

Patrick Murray, director of the university’s Polling Institute, said the response may reflect how expensive medical care is in New Jersey. (Livio/Star-Ledger)  

From the Back Room


Norcross suggests national Dems should focus on ‘their own profile’

Instead of focusing on Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge woes, national Democrats should be “focusing on their own profile.”

That’s the message from South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross III in a Washington Post report on the controversy surrounding lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. (PolitickerNJ)

LeBlanc names Deputy Executive Director of Senate Majority Office

George LeBlanc has been named a Deputy Executive Director in the Senate Majority Office.  

LeBlanc has worked in the Senate Democratic Office since 1998, serving as Director of Budget and Fiscal Analysis since 2002. In his role, he has managed the budget review process for Senate Democrats for the past 12 budget cycles. In 2009, he was elevated to Associate Executive Director. Early in his tenure, LeBlanc also oversaw environmental, energy and economic growth issues.

In addition to his new duties, LeBlanc will continue to serve as the Majority Office Budget Director. (PolitickerNJ)



Chaos in Edison

The Edison Police Department, like a bad soap opera, continues to churn out plot lines that seem too outrageous to be true.

The latest is the discovery that security cameras throughout police headquarters and the local courts have been recording conversations without warrants. The devices were placed in areas where police union officials have confidential conversations and near the courtroom where defendants confer with their attorneys.

This conduct was clearly illegal and merits a criminal investigation to determine if it was deliberate. Police Chief Thomas Bryan had promised that the audio-recording capability of these cameras would be disabled when the cameras went up last year, and he insists the private contractor that installed the cameras is to blame. The contractor is not commenting.

Chilling as this news is, it is not surprising. This department is out of control, divided by factional fighting and crippled by political meddling. In the past 20 years, more than 30 officers have resigned or been fired amid allegations of wrongdoing. One robbed a bank. Another fled the scene of an accident naked. Another was accused of seeking to trade cocaine for sex.

This year alone, one officer was accused of swigging beer in his patrol car while on duty, and another officer of firebombing the home of his captain while the captain’s wife, children and mother slept inside. (Star-Ledger Editorial Board)


Morning Digest: Dec. 18, 2013