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.

Under The Dome

Deafening Silence on Anti-Bullying Bill

After passage in the legislature three weeks ago there has been no announcement from the governor’s office trumpeting his signature on this landmark piece of legislation. Christie managed to sign into law a bill that permits hiring of certain laid off law enforcement officers without utilizing Civil Service lists which was passed by the legislature after the anti-bullying bill. What’s up Governor?

BACK TO WORK NJ: Promoting jobs of the future

S2454 “New Jersey Angel Investor Tax Credit Act,” which has passed a Senate committee, has a hearing today in an Assembly committee (A3592). It provides credits against corporation business and gross income taxes for investing in New Jersey emerging technology industry. It is widely acknowledged that certain “old technology” jobs are not going to return with a rising economy, and that we need to promote NJ jobs in emerging fields. Our legislature seeks to do just that.  

Chris Be Nimble, Chris Be Quick

Shrinking the size of government has been a mantra of our governor. However, the outcome is often a loss in being nimble or being fast and can have a significant negative impact on progams. The Senate investigated Community Affairs’ Winter Weatherization project which in the past typically received $5 million each year, but in 2009 was awarded $119 million for three years as part of the Obama stimulus effort. The only way to assure success of a program that receives a  sudden, huge infusion of funds is to ramp up staffing and expertise to award and monitor the grants. Our governor, who sometimes displays disdain for federal awards (see here) but generally accepts them, is loathe to spend the funds necessary to achieve success. The result is that an audit conducted through June 2010 revealed that only 5 percent of the $119 million was spent and little was done to create new jobs. It is inexcusable when a program with the potential to increase employment and reduce costs of home heating for lower income residents is mismanaged and left to founder on the rocks of inaction. It is time to get it back on track.  

A Triad Multiplying Wealth for the Wealthiest and Leaving the Rest in the Dust

America’s slow, steady slide toward economic oligarchy has been neither beyond human control nor bereft of resistance.  It is about how the “Have-It-Alls” have managed to restructure the economy to shift the risks of their economic playground downward saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on workers, investors and taxpayers. We find that most Americans experienced extremely modest gains over the last 30 years in which the rewards at the top multiplied. From 1979 until the eve of the great recession the top 1% received 36% of all gains in household income. In 2009 at the 38 biggest financial companies investors and executives earned $140 billion.” – WINNER TAKE ALL POLITICS: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (Simon & Schuster – Sep. 2010)

Hacker and Pierson argue that too many books on US politics focus on the electoral circus which determines who can set policy. However, this is not the only period of policy choice, nor the only source that determines outcomes. Elections do have consequences, but most recently we have had both Republican Governor Christie and Democratic President Obama be influenced into maintaining a lower tax rate for millionaires. Hacker and Pierson place their emphasis on the broad, interconnected, influential nexus of policy research groups, organizations representing special interests, and governmental institutions. Together individuals in this triad  – some working on behalf of middle and low income families and others in full-throttle support for the wealthy – battle it out with each other. The victors over the past 30 years, achieving a knockout, have been a fortunate few – the rich and the superrich.

Policy research and setting, the first leg in the triad, does not easily grab the attention of the general public or the media, but its influence is everywhere. The anti-gay marriage policy and talking points were framed in part by the NJ Family Policy Council and used throughout the debate. David Evans, Advisor to Drug Free America Foundation sent out a mass email on proposed policies to make the medical marijuana law even more restrictive, and his arguments and talking points were used word-for-word by people testifying during the legislative resolution hearing. The Tax Foundation develops NJ financial data which has been used for a variety of causes benefiting the wealthy.

There’s more about special interest groups, governmental institutions, how the correct path is not always clear, and the trend remains unabated.  

Under The Dome

The Marijuana Misstep

Governor Christie last week tried to keep in place his flawed medical marijuana regulations and to avoid the embarrassment of a legislative resolution that called for either four changes or a full re-write of the regs.  He thought he was being clever in getting Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton), who led passage of the resolution in the Assembly, to join him in a press conference where they jointly announced a compromise that would require only two changes in the unworkable, restrictive regulations.  Christie’s effort backfired. Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden), who sponsored the bill in the Senate and was not part of the compromise plan, says the deal does not eliminate significant hurdles to patients and distributors, as activists widely agree. Senate Democrats on Monday plan a vote on the resolution to force the governor to rewrite the marijuana regs. For more information on Christie’s botched program go to this diary.

Threading a Path for Teacher Tenure Reform

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), as a prelude to drafting a tenure reform bill, held a hearing this week where a Colorado state senator testified that tenure should be a job protection first earned and then maintained over time – not a near guarantee as it has become for teachers in many states, New Jersey included. In the meantime NJEA announced a plan that would allow tenure charge cases to be handled by an arbitrator instead of a state Administrative Law Judge. NJEA’s plan does not  include lengthening the probationary period before teachers get tenure, providing merit pay for individual teachers, nor linking teacher evaluations to student achievement, which both the governor and the Federal Education Department largely support. Senator Ruiz has a tough balancing act in enacting good legislation that will benefit school children and simultaneously gain acceptance in a partisan, divided atmosphere where the governor not only delights in bullying and name-calling tactics but has such visceral dislike for the NJEA.  

Legislature: Picking Up A Head of Steam

Keep the N in NJN

The Legislature had wanted to lead the negotiations with potential NJN buyers but in a compromise it was agreed that that the State Treasurer would have the power to negotiate a deal. The Legislature retains the right of approval, but likely will face a “take it or leave it” proposition from the governor who controls the money spigot. At least the governor has shown some degree of compromise. Senate President Stephen Sweeney said that NJN could get the additional funding it needs to stay on the air while lawmakers and Gov. Chris Christie come up with a plan.” Nonetheless, this “Perils of Pauline” tale continues.

Arbitration Awards

Governor Christie, who has been pushing his “Tool Kit” as a solution to high property taxes, now is quoted in the hard copy Record (page 8) of today, as saying, “There’s no silver bullet to fix it.” Thank you Mr. Governor. Christie had wanted the arbitration cap to include pension and health benefit costs, over which local entities have little control. The cap compromise excludes these two costs, allows for increases above 2% in multiyear contracts if the overall increase does not exceed 2%, and calls for the limits to go away after three years. The governor secured less “wiggle room” to fudge the cost basis of the cap and a random selection of the arbitrators. As a result Police and firefighter union contracts would be limited to 2 percent annual pay increases if they seek arbitration, although arbitration is not even available in many municipalities.

The nexus between AC and horse-racing

In order to prevent war between the North and the South spilling out into the chambers of the legislature, those supporting initiatives for Atlantic City are also agreeing to benefits for the horse-racing industry. An Assembly committee yesterday voted to legalize casino internet gambling, including on-line poker, with the understanding that as much as $30 million in tax revenue would be used to subsidize horse-racing. Nearly a dozen bills designed to revive the state horse racing and Atlantic City casino industries drew bipartisan support in a key Assembly committee in Trenton on Thursday, as legislators raced to send many of the bills to Governor Christie’s desk before the end of the year.

Legislative Initiatives

Keep the N in NJN – The Senate Committee on State Government is holding a hearing on the future of public television today at 1:00 PM (Room 6 – State House Annex)  A YES committee vote on Senate Bill 2406 will be a step toward saving NJN.  The governor has shown some willingness to compromise but no rescue plan is yet in place. Time is running out.

“Back To Work NJ” –  Yesterday the Assembly considered 8 bills and the Senate discussed 7 bills in their broad plan to enact legislation to reduce unemployment and make NJ more attractive to businesses. Many of the bills which are tax-related require no expenditure on the part of the state and were approved in committee, some on a bipartisan basis. Republicans balked at the $10 million price tag for proposed legislation to create an on-the-job training program for state residents on the unemployment rolls. Each of these bills have an impact, but collectively they can make companies feel more confident about investing and individuals feel more encouraged to seek jobs. In a tough economy where people look for glimmers of optimism, perception can be as important as reality. There needs to be more information on their fiscal impact, but they represent an important step of legisltive leadership in the midst of a sluggish economy.

Property Tax Relief – Some “tool kit” bills are wending their way through the legislature. Civil service and arbitration were discussed again yesterday when the governor, Senate President, and Assembly Speaker met.  As of now there is no agreement but the legislature plans to move ahead with its own bills which could be altered if a compromise is reached. For more information on this matter see Property Taxes On Our Mind.

Property Taxes On Our Mind

“The single most salient fact of New Jersey politics is the state’s high property taxes … and a populace forever perched on the edge of tax revolt – 3.9 million filers, wedgie’d and wet-willied by the state, screaming for relief.” – Jason Fagone: Is Chris Christie A Mad Man?

Unlike with Alka-Seltzer, relief is not “just a swallow away.” A Monmouth University poll confirms that people “feel wedgie’d and wet-willied by the State,” and are pessimistic about property tax relief. Negotiations between Senate President Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Oliver, and Governor Christie are ongoing but will not produce a panacea. Governor Christie’s approach rather than solving the problem has simply postponed it. As the NY Times pointed out on Saturday, “It is the long-term problems of a handful of states, including California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York, that financial analysts worry about most.”

The Monmouth September poll indicates 66% of respondents find it difficult to pay their property taxes, and 62% say these taxes are the least fair. When asked “How likely is it that the state will enact reforms in the next few years to significantly lower property taxes,” 22% say “likely” and 75% say “unlikely.”

Few people view the “tool kit” as a real solution. Sen. President Sweeney has said, “The point is (the tool kit) is not going to be the end-all.” Local officials say they “are angry the state’s most powerful elected officials rushed into a 2 percent property tax cap without giving them the tools to curtail taxes first.” As the Asbury Park Press, which supports the Tool Kit, says, “Christie never claimed his tool kit would usher in a low-tax utopia. He is simply trying to make the state more bearable for taxpayers.” More bearable is nice but not a soluton.

{more below the fold}

“Hanging With The Governor”

Following Monday’s unfinished negotiations with Assembly Speaker Oliver and Governor Christie on the tool kit, the Star Ledger reported that Sen. President Sweeney said he wasn’t disappointed that they haven’t reached an agreement yet.

I’m never disappointed when I’m hanging with the governor,” he said.

Does that make Senator Sweeney a Reagan Republican, a Christie Republican, a Pal of Christie, or something else?  Sweeney did slow down Christie’s effort at Supreme Court packing and tried to extend a millionaire’s tax, so maybe he is a Lieberman Independent? In any event it’s an unusual comment from a leader of the opposing party who thinks he has a particularly comfortable, cozy relationship with the governor. He may think that, but does the governor share the feeling or take advantage of it? Perhaps Sweeney should spend more time hanging with Democrats.  

Whistle While You Work

        Just whistle while you work

       And cheerfully together we can tidy up the place.

                Disney: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

WikiLeaks, today’s ultimate whistleblower, has just provided us with some 250,000 documents about our State Department’s deeds and misdeeds. WikiLeaks plays such a critical role because the statute for federal employee whistleblowers is weak and the special court which hears these cases has provided redress in only three of over 300 cases. (The Supreme Court ruled that government employees do not have protection from retaliation if the alleged speech was produced as part of their duties.) We should now take another look at our own NJ law.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has described the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) as “the most far reaching ‘whistle-blower statute’ in the nation.” Since 1986 CEPA had made it illegal “for New Jersey employers to retaliate against any employee who discloses the employer’s illegal conduct, provides evidence about such conduct, or simply objects to conduct that the employee reasonably believes is illegal.” In April this year a New Jersey Transit employee received a record $569,587 award after a federal investigation found that NJ Transit illegally retaliated against him. In October a NJ State Trooper won a  $240,000 verdict for his whistleblower lawsuit.

Public Employees for Environmental Protection (PEER) holds a less sanguine view of CEPA. In its Accountability Report Card Summary 2009 for New Jersey, it determines:

NJ has an uneven state whisleblower law: scoring only 58 out of a possible 100 points and Ranking 12th out of 51. NJ has a very narrow statute (9 out of 33 possible points), with moderate usability (21 out of 33), and strong remedies (27 out of 33) plus one bonus point awarded foe employee notification rights.

We lose points because the statute does not cover such categories as gross mismanagement, abuse of authority, waste of public funds, alteration of technical findings, and breaches of professional ethics canons.

Our governor says he supports transparency but he also uses bullying, fear, and overblown rhetoric which stifle whistle-blowing. In a federal setting WikiLeaks is like a loose cannon – of great utility but also providing collateral damage. It is much better to have good laws than to rely on loose cannons. It is time for the NJ legislature to review our own law.

Newarkers: Living Without Hope

Not unlike other cities in NJ and throughout the U.S., Newark today has its share of woes, but more importantly a feeling of despair. The most recent issue is the dismissal of 167 police officers, but the hope that was engendered by the election of Mayor Cory Booker five years ago seems to be rapidly disappearing. The national and state economic crisis of unemployment and housing plays a key role, but nowhere is there much confidence that Newark is on the mend.

Police officers don’t like their director and feel they were mistreated by the mayor in the failed union negotiations. A retired police union official says the result is that higher paid but more experienced officers were the ones let go. He points to crime as once again on the upswing and blames the mayor and the courts.

Some Newarkers speak of the “good old days” of Sharpe James and point to the PAC, Prudential Center, and other achievements, some of which James did not even support until the last minute.

continue reading below

“I’m A Good Person”

In Jason Fagone’s PHILADELPHIA magazine article last week, Is Chris Christie A Mad Man?, he writes engagingly about different points in Christie’s career and how he rocketed to GOP savior in 10 short months on “the power of bluster.”

Along the way there were rocky moments. Fagone says that as a Freeholder Christie did solid work but his colleagues hated him, and within a year he ran for the Assembly and lost. In 1997, Christie also lost his reelection bid for freeholder to Cissy Laureys, who, as part of a court settlement, forced him to apologize for an earlier ad. Fagone goes on to say:

On the day Christie cleaned out his office, he came as close to pouring his guts out as he ever would: “They said I was the Pillsbury Doughboy, arrogant, a liar, deceitful,” he told a reporter. “It got difficult at times to accept. But I know when I look in the mirror that I’m a good person.”