Author Archive: Scott Weingart

NJN and Public Radio in New Jersey

Earlier this year, Governor Christie indicated his desire to transfer operation and ownership of NJN, the state’s public broadcasting network, from the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority, a state agency, to a nonprofit organization derived from the NJN foundation. CWA, the union representing most NJN employees, has vehemently opposed this plan, which would see many of its members laid off. The legislature has created a task force to study the issues surrounding NJN and make its recommendations by October 15. Therefore it is timely that yesterday, New Jersey Policy Perspective released a report on the past, present and future of NJN and public media in New Jersey that I co-authored with Princeton Professor Paul Starr and Micah Joselow, a current Princeton student. This post will address the first part of that report, which examines the lack of a strong, New Jersey-based public radio news network and explores the possibilities for expanding public radio in New Jersey.

Blue Jersey readers: Do you listen to the radio on a regular basis? What about public radio? If so, which stations? If there was a public radio “foil” for New Jersey 101.5, would you listen to it?

Biotechs swarm to “Bad for Business” New Jersey

Chris Christie, the geniuses at the Tax Foundation (a right-wing think tank), and other conservatives constantly spout about how New Jersey is unfriendly to businesses, because of “high” state taxes. They forgot to tell that to the biotech industry, which has expanded substantially in the state over the last two years. In a survey by BioNJ, the biotechnology trade group in the state, 78% of the 300 biotech companies in the state said that they expect to hire more employees in the next year.

The fact is, high tech employers see New Jersey as a great place to do business because of the state’s educated population. Cuts to education funding may well damage the state’s ability to attract high tech jobs far more than a millionaire’s tax would.

The Sandbaggers

Republicans have the teabaggers. In the New Jersey legislature, Democrats have the sandbaggers.

Sandbagging, for those who don’t know, is a practice in golf, chess, go, and other sports in which players are sorted or handicapped by ability. It is generally considered to be cheating. Sandbaggers deliberately perform below their potential in order to raise their handicap or lower their rating, thus giving themselves an advantage in future competition (i.e. winning bets in golf or winning tournaments restricted to players of a certain ability level).

An article in the Record, which Thurman Hart brought to our attention earlier this week, alleges that New Jersey Democrats are considering giving up the fight over the FY2011 budget in order to strengthen their position in next year’s legislative elections. Democratic leaders figure that they can hang higher property taxes resulting from reduced aid and rebates in Christie’s first budget around the governor’s neck. But it would be difficult for them to disown a budget that passes the Democratic legislature. To avoid responsibility for the budget, Democrats will resort to sandbagging. Instead of negotiating for a better budget, they’ll refuse to negotiate altogether, and give the Republicans everything. Legislative leaders will essentially hand control of the chamber to the Republican minority while the budget is being considered. Assuming they can win a handful of Democratic votes in each chamber, Republicans will be able to pass a budget little different from the one they would write if they held majorities in both houses.

NJ Republican primary roundup

Recent Republican primaries have provided us with fantastic entertainment, from the Ronald Reagan lovefest at the first GOP presidential debate in 2007 to Carly Fiorina’s now infamous demon sheep ad. While New Jersey’s Republican primaries featured no chicken-bartering candidates or salacious stories of Republican-on-Republican philandery, they offered New Jersey Democrats reason for both laughter and hope, at least on the congressional level.

The night’s biggest contest was the NJ-03 Republican primary, where two Republicans squared off for the right to face freshman Democrat John Adler in November. Jon Runyan managed to fend off tea party candidate and ’08 primary losed Justin Murphy, but not without some difficulty. Republicans are probably beginning to fear that their novice candidate might be no better at running for office than he is at running the 40 yard dash.

In NJ-04, Chris Smith spanked carpet-and-tea bagging Alan Bateman, with a little help from his friend Michelle Bachmann. In 2008, Rush Holt trounced Bateman in the general election in NJ-12.

Congressman Holt will feel a lot better about his chances this fall after watching the train wreck that was the Republican Primary. Establishment candidate Scott Sipprelle squeaked out a narrow victory over tea-bagger David Corsi despite outraising him more than 100 to 1. Holt won more votes than either Republican despite running unopposed.

Elsewhere, Republican incumbents fended off tea party challengers. David Larsen came the closest in NJ-07, falling to Leonard Lance 56-31. After the primary, Lance spoke of the need for Republicans to “extend a hand of friendship to those in the Tea Party movement.” Lance seems far more eager to reach out to right-wing extremists than the president who offered a health care plan very similar to the one championed by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Lance’s voting record and recent rhetoric belie his reputation as a moderate.

The two tea party candidates who also won the support of the Republican establishment, Roland Straten and Dale Glading, easily won their primaries in NJ-08 and NJ-01 respectively. The tea-baggers only other success of the night, at least on the Congressional level, seems to be in NJ-06, where Anna Little leads Diane Gooch by 63 votes with almost all precincts reporting. Republican primary turnout was again low, and as in NJ-12, the Democratic incumbent, here Frank Pallone, won more votes than either Republican.

Three congressional districts had no Republican primary. Incumbent Democrats Donald Payne and Albio Sires can look forward to easy victories over Michael Alonso and Henrietta Dwyer in NJ-10 and NJ-13. Teabaggers in NJ-05 decided against challenging incumbent Scott Garrett in the Republican primary, presumably because there was no room to the right of Garrett to run.

vouchers

Earlier this month, St. Paul Elementary School in Hingham, Massachusetts found itself at the center of controversy when it rescinded admission of an 8-year old boy because his parents were lesbians.

Sean O’Malley, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Boston, insisted that Catholic schools “welcome people from all walks of life,” and that “We have never had categories of people who were excluded.” Archdiocese officials apologized to the parents and offered to find another Catholic school for their son. At the same time, O’Malley defended the school’s decision, and offered his “full confidence and support” to the priest who made it.

What does all this have to do with New Jersey? Two weeks ago, the Senate Economic Growth Committee unanimously approved S1872, the “Opportunity Scholarship Act”, which would provide scholarships to students in underperforming districts to attend private schools or out-of-disrict public schools. Businesses would receive matching tax credits from the state in exchange for providing the scholarships. To compensate for the lost tax revenue, the state would cut aid to public districts based on the number of students who take scholarships. Senator Ray Lesniak, a longtime supporter of school vouchers, expects the legislature to pass the bill before July 1 so that it can take effect before the beginning of the next school year.

The stories from Massachusetts and Colorado raise some questions about the implementation of a private school vouchers. If we allow New Jersey private schools to accept what is essentially taxpayer money, will schools—be they Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or secular—that accept vouchers be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation? on the basis of religion? on the basis of race?

108 days

That’s how long Chris Christie managed to govern before a state appellate court had to scold him for a greedy executive power grab.

Earlier today the court ruled that Christie overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order applying pay-to-play regulations to public sector unions. In a per curiam decision, the court held that Executive Order No. 7, one of eight Christie signed on his first day in office, “is so fundamentally incompatible with our existing laws and statutes as to impair the ‘essential integrity’ of the constitutional powers of the Legislature.”

In short, the court reminded Christie that, even though he was elected governor last November with 48.75% of the vote, he is not entitled to make his own laws. If Christie wants to limit campaign contributions of public employee unions, he can ask the legislature to pass new legislation to that effect.

The governor seems to have learned well from his former boss, who aggressively pushed to expand and abuse the power of the president. Christie, like Bush, possesses a seemingly endless supply of arrogance. He will attempt to abuse his power again, even though New Jersey’s governor is already one of the most powerful state executives in the nation.

Fortunately, we also have a state judiciary that is willing to rebuke the governor when he oversteps his authority—at least for now. But we may not in the future. Christie will be able to pick as many as four judges to the seven-member Supreme court. Don’t be surprised if the Governor takes another page from the Bush playbook by nominating judges who he can count on to accede to his executive power grabs. Christie may figure that if he wins the judiciary, the legislature won’t matter anymore. Legislative Democrats should closely scrutinize all of Christie’s judicial appointments, rejecting them where appropriate, lest the governor’s executive power grabs more often go unchecked.

Nonpartisan agency: Christie budget equals middle class tax hike

According to estimates released today by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, Chris Christie’s budget will mean higher taxes for middle class families in New Jersey, but a massive tax cut for those making over $1 million.

Families making $200,000 per year or less should expect a tax hike. Christie’s budget will raise taxes by more than $1,000 on families making $75,000 per year or less. Meanwhile, the New Jersey’s wealthiest families can expect a generous tax cut. A family of four with an annual income of $500,000 will see $1,500 in savings. A family making $1.2 million in 2010 will see a tax cut of over $11,000.

Christie’s cuts to homestead rebates and earned income credit directly increase taxes on middle class New Jersey families, and his refusal to consider renewing the millionaire’s tax will substantially reduce the tax burdens of rich families who aren’t exactly struggling in economic downturn. His tax policies will shift much the burden of paying for state and local government away from the rich and onto the middle class and the poor:

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A family of four making $40,000 to $75,000 or less will pay 12% of their income to state and local taxes, up from 10% or less. These families will pay a greater percentage of their income in state and local taxes than wealthy families will.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney rightly slammed the Governor for his misplaced priorities:

The Governor keeps talking about a budget based on the concept of “shared sacrifice”. But this analysis proves what Democrats have been saying throughout this process: The sacrifices in this budget are being made solely by the families who can least afford them.

Sweeney and other Democratic leaders have correctly taken a stand against Christie’s proposed tax cuts for the wealthy. Democrats must make it clear that they will not approve a budget that raises taxes on middle class families struggling to cope in a difficult economy while cutting taxes by more $10,000 for the rich.

asdf

Some time in the near future, Governor Christie is going to propose legislation to increase teacher contributions to health benefits beyond 1.5% to a percentage of premiums. These revised contribution rates would apply to all teachers who do not retire at the end of the year. Any teacher who retires after the legislation goes into effect would have to pay health care premiums after retirement.

The legislation will seek not only to require that employees share in the rising cost of health care, but also to encourage veteran teachers to retire. These retirements would presumably help school districts avoid layoffs, but Christie’s Education Commissioner Bret Schundler thinks that retirements will exceed the districts’ targets for job reduction.

This way, a school district will have the opportunity to hire new employees who are less expensive. It will help immediately in fiscal year 11 (2010-11).

On that one point, at least, administration and union officials agree. On Thursday, the NJEA issued a press release warning that 30,000 of the state’s teachers could retire at the end of the year if the legislation passes into law. The parties disagreed, however, on the fiscal impact of the proposed legislation. In the press release, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian warned that the proposal “could jeopardize the immediate health of the entire pension system” by moving thousands of teachers into the pension system years earlier than expected. This added strain on the pension system would force the state actuary to increase the contribution rate for school districts.

So who’s right here?  

In March, Chris Christie single-handedly kills 3,100 jobs

In March, New Jersey shed another 3,100 jobs. While public sector jobs accounted for most of those lost, job rolls in the private sector also fell by 800. This represents the utter failure of Chris Christie’s policies, which were supposed to promote job growth in this state.

If the title of this piece and its first paragraph sound ridiculous, it’s because they are. But only as ridiculous as Chris Christie tramping around Millville Airport for a photo-op and a press conference to announce that Boeing is bringing 100 new jobs to Cumberland County, as he did last Friday. Don’t get me wrong, I expect the governor to promote New Jersey as a great place to do business. But isn’t this the same guy who, during the campaign, harped about how bad New Jersey is a place to do business, and how the state’s policies were the reason for our unemployment rate being a few tenths higher than the national average?

While Christie may have conveniently forgotten about his campaign rhetoric last week, Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney sure hasn’t:

“New Jersey is not a bad place to do business,” said Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland. “It was a bad place. It’s going to get better. It’s going to continue to get better.”

Expect the silly talk on the economy to escalate when New Jersey’s job numbers improve. I bet you’ll hear Christie trying to take all the credit for the improving economy, while folks like Jon Runyan (and heck, maybe even John Adler) blame the Obama administration for 9% unemployment.

The Police State, Part II

In the interest of disclosure, I should note that I am doing some private consulting for Citizen Finance Advisory Task Force, a Princeton Boro “group of concerned citizens and other taxpayers” which seeks to “create taxpayer relief through reduced spending and enhanced revenue”.

Earlier this year, I wrote this paper which examines the compensation of borough employees relative to public sector workers in other states and comparable private sector workers in New Jersey. More recently, I helped the group assess what savings could be obtained by negotiating wage freezes, reductions in annual raises, higher employee contribution to health care, and reduction of other benefits with boro unions, including two police officer unions. I am currently working with them to organize the information in the Boro budget and present it in a format which ordinary citizens can use.

I take no money from any third party for anything I write on Blue Jersey, and what I write reflects my own opinion and my opinion only.

A few weeks ago, I discussed the role binding arbitration has played in driving up police salaries and benefits and consequently local property taxes. Since then, editorial and op-ed pieces in New Jersey newspapers have added to the chorus of voices calling for arbitration reform, which is the number one priority of the state League of Municipalities. In his budget address earlier this month, Christie called for reform to binding arbitration. This could be a step in the right direction, but only if these words are followed with action.

I’ll believe Christie is serious about arbitration reform when I see him offer a serious proposal for reform. There are currently two bills in the legislature, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson’s A996 and Senator Gerald Cardinale’s S1789, that would substantially reform interest arbitration. Neither has attracted much attention in the media or been placed on the calendar for a hearing in a legislative committee. Based on the governor’s recent rhetoric, binding arbitration reform seems to be relatively low on the priority list for the adminsitration. So far, Christie has demonstrated an unwillingness to use the same tough talk with public safety unions that he wields against teachers unions. A couple weeks ago, he called for the teachers and other school employees to accept a wage freeze, something which he has not asked of other local employees, including the nation’s best-paid police officers.

I limited my discussion in the last piece to binding arbitration and its effect of driving New Jersey police officers’ salaries out of balance with police salaries in other states and the salaries of other public employees in New Jersey. But binding arbitration isn’t the only reason police officers cost so much to employ. Below the fold, I will show how lucrative police pensions have played a major role in driving up the cost of municipal government.