Morning Digest: Dec. 24, 2013

Kean attempted to slash O’Toole funding following leadership shakeup attempt

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-21) sought to reward lawmakers who supported his effort to retain his leadership position and slap the legislator who attempted to oust him, according to his leadership allocation request.

Kean proposed slashing Sen. Kevin O’Toole’s (R-40) 2014 legislative funding by $15,000, according to the Senate minority leader’s funding allocation requests submitted to the Senate office and obtained by PolitickerNJ.

The request also would have slashed Sen. Chris Bateman’s (R-16) allotment by $15,000 compared to the previous year’s funding. Both men received $25,000 in leadership funding in 2013. (Arco/PolitickerNJ)



Baroni, Wildstein turn over subpoenaed documents to Wisniewski

TRENTON – Documents subpoenaed from two former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials were delivered to the Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Monday.

Documents sought by former N.J. appointees Bill Baroni and David Wildstein were received and will be examined, Transportation Chair John Wisniewski said in a statement.

Wisniewski said that he received documents from Baroni’s defense attorney today, and then later about 8:03 p.m. he received the documents sought from Wildstein, a former PolitickerNJ editor.

The documents were sought as part of the ongoing probe into the Fort Lee lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September, closings some have said were political in nature. (Mooney/PolitickerNJ)



Sweeney cuts funding for Kean, GOP allies 

TRENTON — An ongoing tiff between partisan leaders in the New Jersey Senate showed no sign of abating Monday as the Democrat chopped $142,000 from a Republican spending account, and the two leaders showed how a political feud can lead to fiscal payback.

Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. said some staff members would lose their jobs as a result of the cut by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat. He did not say that he himself recommended reducing the accounts of fellow Republicans who crossed him during a recent minority leadership fight.

Sen. Kip Bateman of Somerset, who supported Kean rival Kevin O’Toole as Republican leader, told The Star Ledger of Newark he was “not happy” to learn that Kean recommended cutting his share of the account by $15,000. He said the money is used for salaries and would hurt lower-level district office staffers. Sweeney overruled the cut and bumped up Bateman’s account by $5,000, to $30,000. (Associated Press) 



Congress recesses without acting on flood insurance

WASHINGTON — Sponsors of a proposal to delay premium increases for some federal flood insurance policyholders expect a Senate vote on the legislation next month and vow to spend the holiday recess working to build support for it.

“We’re going to have to work hard to convince as many people as possible,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. “If we don’t get 60 votes, the bill will fail and it will be a terrible shame. But I don’t think this bill will fail.”

Despite months of lobbying by the bill’s House and Senate supporters, Congress decided to recess for the year without acting to delay the rate hikes. But Senate Democratic leaders have pledged to call the measure up for a vote possibly as early as the first week in January.

Sponsors of the House version of the proposal, including Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., aren’t sure when that chamber will consider it. They had expected a vote before leaving for recess.

Cassidy, co-chairman of the Home Protection Caucus, created to help make flood insurance more accessible and affordable, is optimistic the legislation will be voted on early next year. He said Congress needs to understand the importance of relief from “catastrophic flood insurance rate increases.”

Democratic and Republican lawmakers said they’ve received hundreds of complaints from policyholders whose rates have increased since Oct. 1. (Berry/Asbury Park Press) 



Christie administration scales back proposed changes to NJ’s civil service system

The Christie administration scaled back its proposed changes to the state’s civil service system on Monday after months of criticism from unions and legislators, who say the changes would open the door to patronage and corruption.

The proposal would create groups of jobs called “job bands” in state government – an earlier version, first released in March, would have applied to county and local governments, too.

But opponents say the new proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect against cronyism or to maintain veterans’ preference.

Job bands are groups of jobs that allow government workers to advance from one job within the band to another without taking a civil service test or competing with other prospective applicants. If the changes are enacted, state employees would still have to take a civil service exam before they are initially hired. But after that, managers would have much more freedom to move workers to other jobs as long as they are not moving outside their band.

Robert Czech, chairman of the Civil Service Commission, which is considering the changes, said creating bands would make government more flexible and effective. He spoke at a hearing Monday morning – which was announced on Fridayafternoon – that unveiled the new proposal.

In addition to removing county and local government employees from the banding proposal, the new revision repeats the commission’s promises that veterans’ preference and protections against discrimination would remain intact.

The revised proposal comes after public sector unions and state lawmakers argued that job bands would remove protections against cronyism and patronage, and it would weaken veterans’ preference built into the examination process. The state Senate and Assembly each passed a resolution in June that states the proposal violates the legislative intent of the Civil Service Act.

State Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, who sponsored the resolution, said he was not satisfied with the revisions. (Linhorst/The Record)   




NJ Republicans argue in Trenton over 43-percent cut in allowances 

As Governor Christie’s national profile broadens as a consensus builder – from working with President Obama on Sandy relief to passing tuition equality – a leadership fight among lawmakers in his own party has become public.

Monday in Trenton, a Senate Republican leader claimed Democrats were playing politics by changing tradition and altering the way money is allocated to pay for senators’ staff. The allegations also betrayed an internal fight. Republicans who lost a Senate leadership battle voiced displeasure with their own party’s leadership.

The disagreement centered on the way an infrequently discussed pot of $330,000 is allocated to Republican senators. Each senator receives a baseline allowance of $110,000, mostly to pay staff. In addition, the minority leader has $330,000 to hand out to members as he sees fit – some receive more, some less.

This year, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, reduced the minority’s pool of money by 43 percent and ignored Minority Leader Tom Kean’s request for how the allocation would be divided among Republicans, said Kean, R-Union.

The reduction comes after an internal Republican power struggle. Behind the scenes, Christie supported Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Passaic, for the leadership position. But Kean managed to keep his title. Sweeney raised the amount of money allocated to O’Toole and some of his supporters, while reducinng the amount most other Republicans received. (Phillis/The Record)   



Feds hand over suspect to state in Short Hills mall carjacking 

NEWARK  —  Federal authorities have cleared the way for one of the four men accused in a fatal carjacking at an upscale New Jersey shopping mall to be charged by state authorities.

A hearing was held Monday in federal court in Newark to dismiss a charge against Basim Henry, who was then immediately turned over to New Jersey law enforcement officials to face murder and other charges in the killing of Hoboken lawyer Dustin Friedland.

Henry was arrested during the weekend in Pennsylvania on a charge of unlawful flight from prosecution, a violation of the supervised release he was subject to for a 2006 robbery conviction. He had been released from federal prison on April 29, 2013, after a judge reduced his near 8-year sentence on the bank robbery conviction by about 10 months.

Following the dismissal of the federal unlawful flight charge, Henry was immediately turned over to Essex County authorities to face charges in the fatal carjacking of Friedland, who was shot on Dec. 15 as he returned to his vehicle with his wife after shopping at The Mall at Short Hills.

The Essex County prosecutor’s office has said the crime appeared to have been motivated by the model of the vehicle, a silver Range Rover, which was found abandoned the next morning in Newark. (Henry/Associated Press) 






Day Is Added to Deadline as Rush Hits Health Portal

WASHINGTON — A record-setting crush of last-minute shoppers descended on on Monday, creating long wait times for users and putting new stress on the government’s much-maligned health portal as they raced against a midnight deadline to sign up for coverage that will go into effect on Jan. 1.

More than one million people had logged on to the site by 5 p.m., officials said, five times more than the previousMonday. The flood of visitors quickly triggered a backup queuing system that invites users to come back during less busy times. More than 60,000 people provided an email address on Monday to get invitations to return, officials said.

The high volume of visitors also prompted White House officials to abruptly establish a 24-hour grace period that will effectively extend the deadline, allowing those who sign up on Tuesday to still receive coverage from Jan. 1.

Officials compared the last-minute decision to the kind often made by election officials to keep a polling place open late into the night to accommodate voters already in line at closing.

The grace period was the latest example of the administration’s willingness to fiddle with deadlines that once seemed set in political concrete. The botched rollout of the website has forced the White House to adjust its plans repeatedly in an attempt to accommodate users and avoid further examples of signs that the program is not ready for prime time. (Shear and Pear/New York Times) 




N.J. Civil Service Commission amends proposed rule changes, but critics still not happy 

TRENTON — The battle over New Jersey’s civil service system continues.

Last week, a state Assembly panel advanced a resolution aiming to stop Gov. Chris Christie’s administration from instituting a set of proposed rule changes to the system, which governs how thousands of public employees in New Jersey are hired, promoted and fired and protects them from political retribution.

In response, the state Civil Service Commission today introduced a series of amendments that limit the scope of the overhaul to mollify critics.

Still, opponents say the amendments don’t fix their concerns and once again accused the Christie administration of trying to railroad the new rules through.

Under the current civil service system, employees receive jobs and move up based on examinations. But under the proposed overhaul, some jobs would be grouped together as part of a “band,” making it easier for manger to move employees from one position to another without exams. State officials say this will streamline promotions and save money.

“It introduces a more effective option to appointing authorities and employees,” Robert M. Czech, chair of the Civil Service Commission, said today.

Christie has said reforming the civil service system will be one of the focuses of his second term. (Johnson/Star-Ledger) 




Obama would give Rutgers 2016 keybote if N.J. Congressional delegation has its way

TRENTON — It could be the hottest ticket in 2016. And it has nothing to do with the presidential race.

New Jersey’s representatives in Congress want President Obama to speak at Rutgers University’s 250th anniversary graduation.

In a letter dated today, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and Congressman Frank Pallone lead the state’s Congressional delegation in urging Obama to accept the college’s invitation to show off his skill for oratory at the commencement ceremony two and a half years from now. (Rutgers’ main campus in New Brunswick is in Pallone’s district.)

“We are pleased to come together to support Rutgers University’s invitation for you to address the graduates of the 250th anniversary commencement,” the letter says. “Your attendance and participation will make this important milestone in Rutgers’ history all the more memorable and auspicious.”

In addition to the backing of the state’s U.S. senators and congressmen, Rutgers sent Obama an official invitation. Alumni, grassroots organizations and students groups are expected to rally around the effort as well. (Portnoy/Star-Ledger) 



Bill would give Port Authority inspector general subpoena power outside the agency

In the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, a Democratic lawmaker said he will introduce a bill to give the Port Authority Inspector General’s office subpoena power over documents or witnesses from outside the agency.

The Inspector General’s office of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is conducting one of several investigations into the unannounced closing of two out of three local access lanes to the bridge from Fort Lee. The closings clogged borough streets and prompted the start of legislative hearings followed by the resignation of two top officials named to the agency by Gov. Chris Christie.

The Port Authority’s failure to explain the closures for two months fueled Democrats’ suspicions they were in retaliation for the Fort Lee mayor’s failure to endorse Christie’s re-election. Christie says he had nothing to do with the closures. (Strunsky/Star-Ledger) 





From the Back Room


Former Corzine spokeswoman dating Spitzer, Daily News reports

Lis Smith, last seen tearfully absorbing the news of Jon Corzine’s 2009 gubernatorial loss, has surfaced in New York City in two-pronged fashion.

She’s Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s spokeswoman; and, according to the Daily News, the girlfriend of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. (PolitickerNJ)





Hurricane Sandy and New Jersey’s Poor

Civil rights groups in New Jersey filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in April charging that the state plan for distributing Hurricane Sandy recovery aid discriminated against blacks and Hispanics who lost their homes in the storm. In September, the Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group, sued the state, alleging that it was withholding public information that would show whether low-income and minority citizens were being discriminated against.

The center now says it has evidence showing that black and Hispanic citizens who seek assistance are being turned away in disproportionate numbers. Its data show that 38.1 percent of African-Americans and 20.4 percent of Hispanics who applied for resettlement grants were rejected, against only 14.5 percent of whites. The group says that it found a similar outcome among people who applied for reconstruction or rehabilitation grants: 35.1 percent of African-Americans and 18.1 percent of Latinos were rejected, compared with 13.6 percent of whites.

The center says that its data show low application rates by minority citizens, which might suggest problems with either the state’s outreach efforts or with the application process itself. Gov. Chris Christie has dismissed the center as a “hack group” that deserves no response. His Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the housing recovery effort, says the charge of discrimination is “outrageously false.”

The numbers by themselves do not prove discrimination. But the Christie administration has a poor record when it comes to supporting housing for the poor. Mr. Christie has tried to undermine the state’s affordable housing laws since he took office and would have dismantled the independent agency that promotes affordable housing had the New Jersey Supreme Court not barred him from doing so earlier this year.

Given that record, federal housing officials need to take a close look to see whether New Jersey is operating in a nondiscriminatory fashion. (New York Times Editorial Board) 


Dem. Senate President Sweeney cuts Christie a break over GWB traffic incident

As national Democrats seek to cut down the rising career of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s most powerful Democrat is cutting him a break.

“No one can possibly imagine the governor ordered this,” Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney said last Thursday, referring to the September closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, the incident that has engulfed Christie for weeks. “It’s stupidity.”

The remark was surprising because Sweeney has never been shy about criticizing Christie when it suits his purposes: His expletive-laced tirade over Christie’s line-item budget cuts in 2011 set a new low point for State House discourse. He mocked Christie’s “Jersey Comeback” boast as shallow sloganeering, openly accused him of exploiting super storm Sandy for political gain, and said Christie “showed reckless disregard for the law” in a dispute over a Rutgers Board of Governors nominee.

But the state’s most powerful Democrat is giving the Republican governor a pass on the bridge issue because it doesn’t suit his purposes – not yet, anyway. Sweeney, a barrel-chested ironworker, is the leader of his party’s most powerful faction, the art-of-the-deal Democrats who see no advantage in kicking Christie while he’s in a rare defensive crouch.

Whether or not the bridge scandal upends his long-term plans to run for president in 2016 – as national Democrats hope it will – Christie is likely to remain the nation’s most powerful governor over the next four years. So why bite the hand that signs the bills and doles out the municipal aid?

If anything, these Democrats have given Christie cover, offering unsolicited doses of damage control as an Assembly panel probes deeper and the national Democratic attack machine churns out web videos portraying Christie as a Machiavellian who closed two bridge access lanes just to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee with four days of gridlock. (Stile/The Record)

Morning Digest: Dec. 24, 2013