Author Archive: Bill Orr

About Bill Orr

University of Virginia Masters in English. Have lived in Argentina, Panama, Delaware, Virginia, California, NYC, and New Jersey for the last 25 years. Former editor and manager at McGraw-Hill, former President of Gay Activist Alliance of NJ, founder of NJ ActUp, and North Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI) in Newark.

E. O. #15: “On the Fly”

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

The New Jersey Governor, particularly through authority granted in the constitution, is probably America’s most powerful governor. All the more reason we should beware of granting the Executive Office even more power. In Governor Christie’s Executive Order #15, designed to curb excesses of State Boards, Commissions, authorities, and agencies, he decrees:  

“No State Authority shall hire, enter into or renew any contract with any lobbyist or legislative agent, unless expressly authorized in writing in advance by the Governor’s Office.” Apparently, lobbying per se is not wrong, but can only be conducted when the Governor-General likes it.

“No State Authority shall approve any travel by any employee or Authority Board member in excess of two-hundred and fifty dollars ($250.00) paid out of Authority funds unless approval is obtained from the Governor’s Office prior to such travel.” While excessive travel expenses have been frequently incurred, this decree represents an absurd level of micromanagement power inappropriate for the Executive Office. With $250 one can barely, if that, cover the expense of a roundtrip Metroliner ticket to DC. How much time and effort of his staffers will be needed to handle such requests?

“No State Authority shall include any financial incentive relating to termination or separation from employment in employment contracts with its employees, unless expressly authorized in writing by the Governor’s Office.” Once again, the Governor indicates he does not necessarily oppose employment separation agreements, just those that he does not like.

The Governor-General is to be commended for tackling the multiple problems with these authorities. However, micromanagement and implying that certain actions might be egregious but are still reserved for the governor smack of power-grabbing and insufficient forethought. He needs to involve the legislature where Senator Loretta Weinberg, for example,  has already displayed leadership and success on this issue.  Or are we witnessing another another example of  “We are doing this on the fly.”      

Pension Reform Concrete

Pew Research Center in a report issued this month, The Trillion Dollar Gap, points out that such is the gap at the end of Fiscal Year 2008 between the monies states have set aside to pay for employee’s retirement benefits and the price tag of those promises. Reducing the gap entails spending funds not available for health, education and important needs, and ongoing gaps could require higher taxes.

Forty states were classified as needing improvement, Here is what Pew says about New Jersey:“New Jersey’s management of its long-term pension liability is cause for serious concern and the state needs to improve how it handles its retiree health care and other benefit obligations. New Jersey had a $7.5 billion pension surplus in 2000, but years of failing to meet the actuarially required contribution led to an unfunded liability of $34 billion in 2008. This has left the state’s pension plans with 73 percent of the assets needed, below the 80 percent benchmark that the U.S. Government Accountability Office says is preferred by experts.”

“Meanwhile, New Jersey faces a $68.9 billion long-term liability for retiree health care and other benefits- one of the largest of any state-but has not set aside any assets to cover that obligation.”

In 2008 and in the Senate’s package of bills this week New Jersey has taken steps to reduce the gap.  On thursday the Assembly is expected to introduce its version of the bills.

Nonetheless, New Jersey’s position of having 73% of the assets needed is in contrast to the 84% average for all states. Hence the Senate will hold hold a public hearing Monday on a constitutional amendment bill that would bind the state to making its full payment to the pension fund.

The bill which voters would have to approve requires the state and political subdivisions “to pay each year the full amount of the contribution it is required to make to any defined benefit pension plan operated by the State for public employees.”  It further “requires  the contribution to include the normal contribution and the unfunded accrued liability contribution…” The amendment permits the State a seven year period to gradually phase in its it payments to meet the requirement.

More up-to-date financial data would help citizens to understand where we are now, but the problems are real and the solutions involve tough medicine. New Jersey has to get itself back into a position where it can meet pension obligations and have more funds for the wider needs of its citizens. The recession and some ill-advised pension fund investments did not help the Garden State. Fortunately, New Jersey, as opposed to a number of other states, in 2008 and in the current legislative session is addressing the problem. “It’s a long-term fix, it is not a quick fix,” said Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the majority leader. “Don’t underestimate what we’re doing here today.  This is the New Jersey Legislature, where things are maddeningly incremental.” Fortunately, even incremental changes can make a substantial difference over time.

The final outcome of pension reform this year, particularly the constitutional amendment, is not set in concrete, but without substantial changes NJ will be under even heavier concrete that will impede meeting other pressing needs.  

The struggle for ME continues

The atmosphere at last night’s Garden State Equality rally in Montclair was so much friendlier than the recent GSE foray into Secaucus where the mayor, councilmen and residents were often hostile. Here in Bnai Keshet Synagogue in the land of Senator Nia Gill and Assenblywoman Sheila Oliver it was more like preaching to the choir. Preachers included Assembly Speaker Oliver, Senator Teresa Ruiz of Newark, GSE President Steve Goldstein, and friends of GSE. The choir included  a group of some 200 marriage equality enthusiasts, including a large contingent of kids and some teenagers wise beyond their age.  

Speaker Oliver talked about the need for resilience on the part of GSE members saying it’s just a matter of time for this human rights, civil rights, equality issue. In terms of why the marriage equality bill did not pass the legislature, she spoke of how the matter became framed in the context of religion and how it can be difficult for politicians to vote their gut.  She spoke of other concerns she wants to address: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ENDA, and school bullying.  Perhaps alluding to looming battles, she said it is important for Democrats “to define ourselves and not allow others to define us.”

Senator Ruiz gave a moving, emotional speech of support drawing on personal experience with a relative. Celebrity stars of GSE commercials spoke passionately as did members of the audience.

After the speeches we took to the streets bearing candles and headed to the GSE office for the traditional pizza – a nice ending for a nice day.

The rallies continue tonight (Friday) in Asbury Park and Monday in Trenton where there are two more opportunities to remind the public that New Jersey’s separate, unequal and failed civil union law should should be repealed and a new law enacted that provides true marriage equality. It is important to keep this message in people’s minds and hearts as even the courts, which will have to respond to GSE’s planned litigation, have been known to listen to the public’s pulse. 

Medical Pot Users Beware

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

The Compassionate Marijuana Medical Use Act takes effect in July.  I suspect, however, it might be as much as another six months before legally purchasing medical marijuana will be a reality.  Be careful about not jumping the gun. First, regulations have to be clarified and issued, distribution sites have to be approved, meet rigid standards, and set up, users have to be certified by a doctor, and, where a caregiver will purchase the marijuana, the care giver needs to undergo a criminal background check.  

Our Governor-General, through his buddies in the legislature, assured that New Jersey’s law is the most restrictive in the nation. Unlike other states, individuals can not grow their own medicinal pot, are limited to only 2 oz per month, and will likely have fewer sites from which to purchase.

There are also significant work-related issues.

See: http://www.nj.com/business/ind…

The act, for example, doesn’t allow the use in the workplace. What it does is protect users from being arrested. Under a strict reading of the law a company can fire someone who tests positive for medical marijuana even if it was used outside of work. Discrimination claims at this point are problematic because the act does not require the employer to accommodate any medical use.  

These and other issues might well be litigated at some point, but it would helpful if the NJ Department of Health & Senior Services (DH&SS) issue further clarifications in their regulations.  DH&SS at some point will post proposed regulations on their website.  People who want to have a say in the regulations can review 2008-2009 Bill S119 and address comments to the attention of the DH&SS Commissioner.  

The worst is yet to come but …

Governor Christie’s recent Executive Orders and his planned budget cuts for the current fiscal year are only the beginning of the oncoming tsunami.

He has said, “I’m gonna govern like a one-termer.” His axe has started to fall and will continue to fall in areas such as Abbott expenditures, state pension funding, NJEA,  environmental regulations, aid to municipalities, Property Tax Relief Fund, affordable housing, homeowner rebates, income tax, health care expenditures and more.  His recent reticence to declare a state Snow Emergency because he knew NJ first had to commit its own funds, was just a small example of what is to come.

He is facing a huge shortfall in next years’ budget which may be well in excess of $8 billion.  As  conservative Eileen Norcross points out,  “With the nation’s highest property taxes (an average of $7,000 per capita), an eight-bracket, progressive income tax, a $45 billion debt load, and the net loss of more than half a million residents since 2000, New Jersey is suffering the painful fallout of its long-running policy of fleecing residents to benefit politically-connected special interests.”  And the conservatives have many “solutions.”

There will be plenty to keep concerned progressives furious over our governor’s upcoming moves, not only as he outlines in March his budget for the upcoming year, but as he addresses policies regarding the environment, education, health care, law, and much more.  Progressives might do well to “understand the enemy,” and  pick and choose their fights lest they become viewed as the “party of NO.” State residents do seem to like some of Christie’s axe-wielding ways, yet these very residents voted for Corzine just four years ago and are not necessarily ready to embrace all plans of our Governor-General.

I for one will not be concerned when he attacks special interests, including  excessive salaries for teachers, municipal employees, and agency staff, as well as unwarranted benefits in the State pension plan.  I will be concerned when his policies threaten damage to education, health, the environment, civil rights, affordable housing and services for the disenfranchised.

We must not allow the enormity of Christie’s tsunami to overwhelm us such   that we just flail away in a vicious, tumultuous  sea. But rather use laser-like focus and stand up for critical, core beliefs.  As a character in Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures says, “It is the ripple, not the sea.”  

P.S. For a conservative perspective on NJ fiscal problems, see Eileen Norcross (A Rutgers graduate and contributor  to Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and Forbes):

http://newjersey.mercatus.org/…

and

http://reason.com/archives/201…

What’s the Tea Party All About?

So what is the New Jersey Tea Party all about? I gather its members are not well known for drinking tea, tossing tea into the Boston harbor, nor acting with the proper etiquette expected at a tea party.  They do not gather at 4:00 PM with scones and cucumber sandwiches as do the British, nor do they attend a tea ceremony – a moment of beauty, quietude and politeness toward others – as do the Japanese.  

And yet I hear this busy, fractious Tea Party is active in New Jersey.

Dear readers please explain this group to me and how progressives should respond.

Sincerely,

Your Confused Scribe

Go Saints! Go Scott Fujita!

Okay, Bill’s got an interesting reason to root for the Saints. Works for me, but I was already behind the Saints. Here’s some more on Fujita’s politics –  here, here, and here. Go Saints! Go Fujita! Who are you rooting for today, Blue Jersey? – Promoted by Rosi

As people gather Sunday for the annual ritual of watching the Super Bowl, I can’t help but support the Saints – a team from post-Katrina New Orleans.  Then there’s the Saints’ star linebacker Scott Fujita, a socially conscious athlete who has been outspoken in support of  pro-abortion rights, gay rights and civil liberties. Talk about a progressive athlete… wow!

In an October 6, 2009, interview with David Zirin of the Nation Magazine, Scott explained why he was supporting the upcoming National Equality March for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights in Washington DC. “By and large in this country the issue of gay rights and equality should be past the point of debate.” On other people’s opposition to gay adoption, he indicated, “what that is really saying is that the concern with one’s sexual orientation or one’s sexual preference outweighs what’s really important, and that’s finding safe homes for children.” On religion he stated, “I don’t like it when people use God or Jesus Christ in this whole debate, if you could even call it a debate. Jesus Christ to me, is probably the most compassionate and revolutionary thinker of all time.”

In the NYTimes (02/02/10) he talked about another football player Tim Tebow (Quarterback – Florida Gators)  who will be featured in an anti-abortion Super Bowl commercial.  Scott Fujita said, “The idea of focusing on the family – who wouldn’t agree with that? But the means of doing so, he and I might not see eye to eye all the way.”  In its infinite wisdom CBS will air the anti-abortion commercial but has refused to air a gay dating service commercial.

A self-described “big white guy with the Japanese name,” he traces his concern for civil liberties to his family’s experience with Japanese internment camps during World War II. As an infant he was adopted by a Japanese-American family. His grandmother had been placed in such a camp and his adopter father was born in the camp.  Scott Fujita said to Michel Silver of Yahoo Sports, “It’s a horrible chapter in our history… and I wasn’t even taught about it in school. It’s something I feel very strong about, especially after 9/11, where there were so may similarities with people’s civil liberties being violated.”

Off hand I can not think of a NJ pro athlete who is nearly as progressive.  Can you?

Go Saints!  Go Scott Fujita!

Sports & Entertainment: 3 Ill-Conceived Ventures

Three Bad Ideas: 1) The notion that the State of New Jersey could do a good job running Sports & Entertainment venues; 2. that Xanadu would become a great success; and 3) that the NJ Nets Basketball team could be successfully moved to Brooklyn.

First lets address one delusion of Governor Christie, as reported in today’s Record. Regarding any deal between the Nets and the Devils under which the the basketball team would move to Newark, Governor Christie said,”Nothing comes to my desk unless I want it to come to my desk.”  Dear Mr. Governor, you are the governor, and like it or not you can’t always control what lands on your desk.  Check with your predecessors.

The State’s ownership and management of Sports & Entertainment venues historically has been rife with over-bloated salaries, perks for politicians, waste, and fraud.  The result: a run on the State treasury. The state should sell off its assets, get out of this business, and turn it over to private enterprise.

Only other delusional people could have believed in the success of Xanadu.  Beyond being the turnpike’s great eyesore, it had little to offer.  Yes, an indoor ski slope was an innovative idea, but most of the other projects – restaurants, shops, a movie theater –  are already available in many  malls without having to face the potential Meadowlands traffic congestion, turnpike toll fees, Xanadu parking fees, and long walks within the huge facility.  As a nearby resident I saw little in Xanadu that I could not find  find a few miles from where I live (or probably from where you live) – and without the headaches. (Naturally sunday football rituals at the stadium are not materially affected.)

The state could wait several years until the economy improves substantially and perhaps negotiate a strong financial deal for the Xanadu property, but in the meantime the existing structures would deteriorate while the state treasury struggles.  According to the Record,  real estate executive Steve Ross is in serious talks to take over Xanadu.  Such a deal, negotiated wisely by the state, could be a win-win.  The state would get revenue from the sale, and with some fresh rethinking from new ownership, Xanadu might yet become a success.

As a longtime NJ Nets fan, the plan of its real estate owner to move the team to Brooklyn has been so far an equally ill-conceived venture – fraught with delays, uncertainty and the Perils of Pauline. The results: the owner has starved the team of money and talent, reduced the fan base,  entered into a convoluted ownership arrangement with a wealthy Russian sports team owner whose plans are unclear, and as a final insult removed “NJ”, leaving only “NETS”, as the name for this team whose roots are long entwined in the history of NJ sports.

NJ fans want a NJ basketball team.  It belongs in Newark’s Prudential Center.  The IZOD Arena is an aging venue that inside resembles a larger version of your high school basketball arena, full of concrete blocks, few amenities, and ugliness.  It did serve a purpose and offered value to sports fans, but it no longer meets the needs of  a modern sports arena.  It would cost a huge sum to renovate – funds for which the State is in no position to borrow money.

If a private buyer for the IZOD Arena could be found, that would be great. Let the buyer refurbish it.  However, without at least one major sports team in the arena it probably is not financially viable. Prolonging its life as a state entity will only result in  ongoing deficits and in reduced income for both Prudential Center and IZOD Arena as they compete for entertainment attractions.

Our state has more pressing problems now.  It should get out of the S&E business, make as good a deal as it can over the Xanadu property, shed itself of the IZOD Arena, and encourage the NJ Nets to move to Newark.   The Governor, wearing his hat as S&E Czar, has tough decisions to make. They will land on his desk whether he wants them to or not.  But heck, isn’t that his job?

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – the Take Away

At todays Senate hearing on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Chair Carl Levin strongly supported repealing the law, saying,”The policy makes no sense.” Vice Chair John McCain opposed repeal indicating, “In the middle of two wars it is not wise… bad for discipline,and morale…”

Defense Secretary Gates announced he has appointed a working group to examine the matter and to make recommendations by the end of the year on how to implement such a repeal. He emphasized, however, it is up to congress to repeal the law. Democratic Senator Webb suggested he would like to hear the results of this working group before congress decides what to do.

THE PROBLEMS: Don’t Ak Don’t tell has been law since 1993, during which period there has been plenty of time for working groups to study the matter.  Indeed, President Obama, a known supporter of repeal,  has been in office for over a year, yet not until now is a serious study about to be undertaken, and it will last a year. And Gates implied it would take an additional year to implement it. Another problem: lengthy delays served to scuttle President Clinton’s desire to end this form of discrimination, and could easily play the same role now, particularly in the midst of midtem elections. A final problem:  it is not clear that the Senate could muster 60 votes to repeal the law.

THE SOLUTIONS: Senate and House leaders, and the President should use their muscle to get the needed votes soon,OR the repeal should be included as a clause in the next military authorization bill, in which case 60 votes (unlikely) would be needed to remove the clause.  

THE UBER SOLUTION: It’s time to show some audacity, Mr. Commander in Chief.  Our LGBT troops, their families and friends deserve no less.  “JUST DO IT.”

For they’d none of ’em be missed

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi. Clever use of G&S, and this reminds me a bit of tabbycat31’s diary of things that should just go away. Who’s on your list, today, Blue Jersey?

“As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,

I’ve got a little list – I’ve got a little list

Of society offenders who might well be underground,

And who never would be missed – who never would be missed!”

Ko-Ko in the Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan

Ah, for a progressive, my list of offenders who never would be missed is exceedingly long. Where to begin? What the heck… why not start with Senator Ron Rice Sr. (D-Essex County)    

–  About 25 years ago in Newark’s City Council he proposed a bill forbidding Newark hospitals from providing AIDS care to non-Newark residents.

–  A steadfast opponent of syringe exchange.

–  Voted against Marriage equality.

–  Voted against medical marijuana.

“The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you.

But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list,

For they’d none of ’em be missed – they’d none of ’em be missed!”