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.

Our Long, Hot Summer

promoted by Rosi



                                     “We’re having a heat wave,

                                     A tropical heat wave,

                                     The temperature’s rising,

                                     It isn’t surprising.”


                                                       (Irving Berlin)

NJ’s long, hot summer has been made all the more unpleasant by a governor, bursting with self-aggrandizement, who refuses to budge (for “financial reasons” he says) on family planning clinics, continues to flog his divisive “Tool Kit,” meddles with medical marijuana, vetoes a homebuyer tax credit, hints he won’t make a pension plan payment next year, amazes us with his non-transparent Reform Jersey Now affairs, issues half-baked commission reports, and disputes the OLS projection of another $10.5 billion deficit next year.

One has to hold a certain admiration for his abilities. He is able to maintain party discipline with Republican legislators toeing the line. He is a media darling in national circles. He is flexible enough to “find” the money when it’s absolutely necessary for him. For better or generally for worse, he has cut the budget and tax rebates, decreased monies to municipalities, mistreated an un-tenured Supreme Court member, stood firm against a higher millionaire’s tax, capped property tax hikes and school superintendent pay, and unrelentingly taken on teachers. So far he retains about the same level of popularity among voters.

I wish him a long and happy out-of-state vacation.  We all deserve a rest.  Maybe even the heat wave will subside.      

Gang Activity – Right and Wrong Way

promoted by Rosi

It is great that Sen. Menendez and Rep. Pallone are introducing federal legislation to deter gang activity. It is a serious problem in NJ and nation-wide.  Part of their plan is worthwhile and the other part is atrocious.

The bill will fund billions of dollars to create programs for at-risk youth through community service initiatives and will help offenders transition out of prison. These types of programs have been demonstrated to deter gang activity.

The second part of the plan as explained in the Star-Ledger is not all beneficial; it’s barbaric and counterproductive: sentencing someone to prison for up to 30 years for committing two or more gang-related crimes or placing a 20-year penalty on recruiting minors into gangs. In some neighborhoods youth have little choice but to join gangs and doing so might be the best way of protecting themselves. Just being present at the commission of a crime can lead to a first offense. For some joining a gang is a badge of honor, and an even bigger badge when they recruit others. Spending time in jail becomes viewed as a routine rite of passage. The biggest Badge of Honor was to be incarcerated in the Gang Unit at Northern State Prison where the baddest of the bad were sent. These are not attitudes we want to encourage. Incarceration and ever-increasing sentences do not deter gang activity.

I am surprised and disappointed to see Menendez and Pallone take such an antiquated and discredited approach. It might help them get some Republican votes but it won’t help youth. Neither will it burnish their reputation for sound, progressive legislation. Rather, the focus should be on prevention programs that provide alternative activities (basketball, GED education, self-esteem training,) that engage youth, serve as empowerment, and steer them toward a more productive life.

We need more Officer Krupke’s and the social worker who wanted the West Side Story gang members to stop blocking the street and attend a dance, as opposed to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio who just wants to lock them up.  

What do you think?  

Water Woes: “Bring the Money to Newark”

Promoted by Rosi

The great film noir Chinatown deals with intrigue, fatalism, and murder in the pursuit over control of water, with themes of politics, power and money. A tycoon in the movie says, “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” The situation is not too different from Newark today where the city lacks the revenue to pay its bills, and its mayor is desperately looking to a Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) to be its savior. Newark already owns and operates its water system, so the question is “whether you bring the money to Newark” via the authority’s ability to issue bonds. Resolution of the matter will significantly impact the mayor, councilmembers, and residents.

Under Mayor Booker’s plan out of $223 million to be raised in two years, $100 million would go into the city’s coffers to help close the current and next year’s budget shortfall. It would be a huge help to the city’s finances during the initial two years. The mayor points to such potential benefits as infrastructure improvement, the need to meet EPA standards, the possibility of increased revenue from other municipalities purchasing the water, and new jobs.

Its longer term effect is likely to pile additional interest debt on an already overburdened city, generate sharp water price increases, and reduce city control of its water management – issues which the council must consider and/or modify carefully. Unintended consequences, suggested by the Sierra Club which vehemently opposes the deal, include wasteful spending practices, loss of transparency, decrease in water quality, and pay-to-play problems. Indeed, only about $28 million is proposed for actual improvements to the water system. The reality is that while there are benefits that can accrue from creating an MUA, Booker’s main need is to reduce his severe budget problems.

Faced with unattractive options, three key councilmen – Payne, Rice, and Sharif – are now on the fence, three are currently opposed, and three are in favor. This issue has been discussed for months, indeed even for years as former Mayor Sharpe James once advocated a similar plan. In the meantime there is growing opposition from residents.  With the threat of a state take-over looming in the future, it is necessary for the council to come up soon with either its own proposal to cope with the budget crisis, or accept Booker’s plan with some modifications. Without a solution the potential for punishingly higher tax rates and further reduction in city services seems real. Also, the likelihood of the council “finding” acceptable cuts of $70 million in this year’s budget seems remote. Therefore, since we can not bring “Newark to the money,” as bondholders would be skeptical, we must bring “the money to Newark” via the MUA. Perhaps learning from recent experience with such problem-plagued groups as the Passaic Valley Sewage Authority and insisting on more transparency, the Newark story will have a happier ending than Chinatown.

A New Jerseyan’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Promoted by Rosi

“A sweet-face man, a proper man, as one shall see in a summer’s day.” I dreamt of him this midsummer Jersey night and of the many wondrous promises he had made to our state.

Ah, I worried, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” But remembering the treasures he assured us, I boasted, “My heart is true as steel.”

Thus I determined, “I must go go seek some dewdrops here and hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.” Alas, I found no dewdrops nor the cowslips, and I was shocked.

Indeed, I thought I heard him mutter, “Lord what fools these mortals be.”

Partly awakened, I exclaimed, “What visions have I seen! Methought I was enamored of an ass.” All was not as promised, nor was the man as proper as I had thought.

Sadly I realized, “Quick bright things come to confusion.” My dream had turned into a nightmare.

(Thanks to the Bard)  

Gaming, Sports & Entertainment Trivia

Promoted by Rosi

Something more than a trial balloon but far less than an actionable plan, The NJ Gaming, Sports, and Entertainment Advisory Commission Report only appears bold in its sweep and potential impact. It has stated goals but they are often vague or aspirational. Not well spelled out are the implementation, finances, and outcomes. Rather than presenting exciting new ideas, most proposals entail Kicking The Can Down The Road (KTCDTR.) Such important matters deserve not the treatment of trivia – details, considerations, or pieces of information of little value- but a more thorough report. As the Star Ledger reported, Assemblyman Caputo said, “I don’t see the kind of intense analysis you need to deal with the problems.” This is a report for a governor who is always in a rush to address important problems, has the communication skills to propel his plans, demands action now, but lacks the knowledge, wisdom and vision that are needed.  

Below the fold are comments on many of the commission’s half-baked recommendations.

NJ Economics: “Eyes Wide Open” not “blinders”

The two recent Christie vetoes of Family Planning and “Homebuyer tax credits for newly built homes, beyond reflecting disdain for women and middle class home purchasers, are signs of a financial lack of vision and a reckless disregard for the need to stimulate a floundering NJ economy.  In the case of Family Planning for every dollar NJ invests the feds will contribute nine dollars – money that will help hold on to jobs and circulate throughout our state. In the case of home sales, NJ continues in a slump, drastically impacting construction and related industries, with no hope for recovery until there is an improvement in the housing market.  

The outlook for our state economy remains dire. The Department of Labor reported jobless claims in NJ rose this week the most in any state. At a Federal Reserve regional press conference Fed economists said, “Recently, economic activity in New York State, New York City and Puerto Rico appeared to be recovering, while activity in New Jersey remained essentially flat.” The Star Ledger reported Friday, “Bank economists said a slow jobs recovery and a shrinking manufacturing sector mean the Garden State, which entered the recession six months before the rest of the nation in June 2007, could also be one of the last to emerge.”

The conservative philosophy of “cut, cut, and cut” does not work in a depressed economy as we learned during the Great Depression.  A more progressive vision is needed, one which seeks to keep people employed, strengthen an anemic housing market, reduce fees, taxes, and expenses on those least able to afford them, provide loans and incentives to small business, and as suggested in a Federal Reserve article, temporarily raise income taxes on high-income households. Without this broader vision not only do more people suffer unnecessarily, but state revenue continues to decline and undesirable unemployment-related expenses increase, resulting in an ongoing vicious cycle and a stagnating economy.  

The legislature in the Family Planning and Homebuyer Tax Credit bills has addressed needs which are both socially/medically relevant and economically necessary. In confronting a governor with blinders, the legislature with eyes wide open should continue to promote progressive solutions.

HIV Advances Stalled: From Vienna to USA to NJ

With the 18th International HIV/AIDS Conference going on now in Vienna, the news has remained depressingly similar over the last 10 years. Yes, treatments have improved significantly and there have been other important developments, but over this period there has been each year about 55,000 Americans newly infected and an even larger number who lack proper access to care. The White House just released its National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which calls for steps to reduce the annual number of new H.I.V. infections and increase the proportion of newly diagnosed patients linked to clinical care.

Data from our Department of Health indicates that since the beginning of the epidemic in NJ there have been 73,800 documented individuals with HIV/AIDS, of which 38,788 have passed away and 35,102 remain alive. The HIV-related health disparities are particularly pronounced in NJ where one in 62 Blacks and one in 184 Hispanics are living with HIV/AIDS vs. one in 701 Whites. The number of people who were exposed through injection drug use has shown a downward trend between 2005 and 2009, while those exposed through male-to-male or heterosexual contact has continued to increase. 31% of our cases, higher than in other states, are women.

The problem is that internationally wealthy donor nations are reducing their funding, nationally the White House’s plan does not propose an increase in funding, and in NJ our governor and legislature are cutting funding. In our NJ budget there is a reduction in the number of individuals who qualify for the state drug distribution program, a $5 million cut in the HIV rapid testing program, and increases in medical co-pays. As the NY Times has editorialized, “Slowing the spread of H.I.V. will require multiple approaches. The challenge will be to find enough money at a time of limited resources when AIDS financing has flattened out.”

Discrimination, stigma, and public apathy remain as significant barriers. However, they existed initially with cancer as well, but Americans, regardless of whether they thought they were at risk for cancer, united to demand solutions. Every nine-and-a-half minutes, another person in the United States becomes infected with HIV, and many of them will struggle for access to care. We must continue demanding more and better research, prevention, testing, treatment, and access for all Americans. Imagine how much better off we would be if 25% of our current war budget were transferred to improving our health.

Summer Reading: Privatization Report Lite

Promoted by Jason Springer: We’ve had some posts about the privatization proposals and here’s Bill Orr’s take.

The NJ PrivatizationTask Force Final Report is superficial, sloppy and biased. As a Business Plan it is an abject failure because it provides no support for its many claims. A venture capitalist, university professor, or CEO would grade it as “C” as in crap, “I” as  in  incomplete, and “U” as in useless. A governor reading such a report should provide similar grades, unless it happens that he agrees with the conclusions and is willing to ignore the lack of quantifiable substantiation.

In the introductory section the report pays lip service to such goals as  quality, timeliness, risk management, expertise, and innovation. However, in discussing potential targets for privatization it generally fails to mention such goals. For many targets it states a specific cost saving but provides little or no basis to justify the claim.

For example, the report recommends four activities of the Department of Corrections for privatization and lists the anticipated cost savings:        

  

Inmate Medical Services ($6.9 million) The recommendation vaguely states, “Through a combination of privatization and changes in the delivery and management of inmate medical services the state should realize a 15% saving.” The basis provided for such savings is the plan to introduce a wellness program (vaccines, health tests, etc.) which experts agree improves healthcare but does not necessarily reduce costs. Biases are introduced into the report with two statements: 1) the fact that there is an opportunity now to privatize because the provisions of an inmate healthcare law suit have just expired, and 2) “NJ is generally considered to provide quite generous medical services in its correctional facilities.” This significant change is presented in a few paragraphs with unsupported generalizations and no evidence any homework was done.

   

Prison Food Services ($6.8 million) With a current cost of 3 meals per day at $8.18 per inmate the report concludes that costs can be reduced to $6.00 per day because Kansas recently privatized its food service and realized a 25% savings. Such a statement is fatuous with no further explanation or footnotes. Also do we really think $6.00 per day is sufficient for acceptable food?

Food Distribution Network (TBD) The only explanation for this change is that the state’s system is outdated and that all but three states have privatized the delivery. There is no explanation as to why the system is outdated, what system would supplant it, or what the cost savings might be.

Inmate High School Education & GED Program ($2.7 million) The recommendation is: “It is difficult to ascertain what the savings would be. That said, based on a 10 to 25 percent range of expected savings, the state should expect to save anywhere from $2.75 million to $7.13 million annually.” There appears to be no due diligence or homework done on the matter, so we are provided a “guesstimate,” with no other benefit stated.

The report is an embarrassment and no basis on which to make important decisions.

HIV Meds: “That’s Your Governor.”

Promoted by Rosi

A provision in the recently approved state budget will mean that about 1,000 HIV/AIDS patients can no longer receive free medication from the AIDS Drug Distribution Program. These meds are the difference between life and death, but they are expensive – anywhere from $12,000 to $30,000 per year. The maximum annual income allowed to qualify for the program effective August 1, has been lowered from $54,150 to $32,490. People earning $33,000, for example, would now have to spend between 36% and 91% of their income just on medicine.    

As someone in the Health Department succinctly explained when a patient faced with this crisis asked what he should do, “We offer nothing else here. That’s your governor. We didn’t do it.”  So welcome to the brave new world of less government, less spending, and less compassion.

It took many years (too many years) of research to develop the drugs that are now successful enough so that patients can not only live with HIV but also work and be productive individuals. Starting August 1 some of these patients may quit their meds and die soon or stop working and seek Medicare or Medicaid. There are some limited alternatives including NJ Workability Program, but they are complicated. Individuals faced with this dire situation should contact HIV/AIDS service organizations such as NJCRI (973.483.3444) and Hyacinth (732.246.0204.)

The State only contributes about 22% of the cost of these drugs as the remainder is paid by the federal government and pharmaceutical firms. For those who quit their jobs the state will have to assume higher costs. For a productive  individual having to become a “ward of the state” is a crushing blow.

But as was explained, “That’s your Governor.” And because of the breadth of the cuts through so many different programs, in how many other cases will people seeking help from their government be told, “We offer nothing else here?”  

King James and King Christie

Passed downcourt by Rosi

Basketball is a team sport. To win the finals a team generally needs three superb players. When a team lacks multiple strong members and someone like LeBron James takes over the game, he scores a lot of points, but  because other members stand around submissively watching their leader, their team does not do as well. The Lakers and Celtics, each with multiple superstars, fared better in the playoffs. In the unlikely event that LeBron were to decide to join the Nets, he could score lots of points, but he would not have key high enough caliber team members to ensure play-off success.

In NJ government where a team of Executive, Legislative, and Supreme Court leaders should be striving together for excellent governance, we have King Christie taking over the game while others often stand by and watch. Not a formula for victory.  Even on a basketball team different players have different personal agendas, but like our NJ leaders they are paid by the same source and should have a single objective of succeeding in their task. NJ governance would benefit from at least three key players, but is currently operating with only one superstar.

NJ Nets would not benefit from King James, and NJ is not benefitting from King Christie. Neither the Nets nor NJ need one superstar. They each need a roster with several seasoned, high-performing leaders.