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.

More Elections Fraud, Still No Paper Trail

No one was surprised when a county elections worker was found guilty this week of absentee ballot fraud and using county computers to add fictitious voters to the rolls. This particular year-long investigation has ensnared ten defendants. The frequency of elections fraud in many different guises renders it almost banal.

What does surprise me is how little concern there is from politicians and the pubic for the integrity of our voting system. Stephen Taylor, Director of the Division of Criminal Justice, said, “We will continue to investigate any allegations of election tampering.” That’s good, but how about also using more  preventive measures? And where are our legislators on the matter?

A February 2010 Superior Court ruling improved aspects of our electronic voting machines and ordered further review, but Judge Feinberg refused to require paper copy as backup. Transparency apparently is unnecessary for one of our most fundamental rights – the right to vote. How can citizens be expected to trust the results when there is no paper support for the individual ballots cast? Even without fraud unintended bugs can be in machines.

Senator Nia Gill and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora introduced a bill (S900/A1087) which “requires each voting machine shall produce an individual permanent paper record for each vote cast, which shall be made available for inspection and verification by the voter at the time the vote is cast, and preserved for later use in any manual audit.”  Now there’s an idea worth supporting – even worth haranguing legislators to support.

Alice needed her yellow brick road. E.T. followed the Reese’s Pieces. Voters need a paper trail.  

Pension Reform: Yes We Can! and Yes We Must!

In an unusual display of bipartisan support Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean (R-Westfield) agree that the state needs a constitutional guarantee that future lawmakers and governors will not shirk their annual pension obligations.

Highlighting the seriousness of the problem, on February 25 the State Treasury provided updated information for 2009: “The Division of Pensions and Benefits today released reports that estimate unfunded  liabilities of the state pension system rose $12 billion to $46 billion from June 30, 2008, to June 30, 2009. The market value of the pension funds plunged by $17 billion to $66 billion during the same period.” 

 

There has been a discussion of which governors and parties have been responsible for the underfunding. Below according to the February 2010 Pew Report: The Trillion Dollar Gap: “In New Jersey, with a pension system that was about 106 percent funded in 1998, the state legislature began to dramatically underfund its annual contributions. Between 2000 and 2006, the state never exceeded 30 percent of the required contribution. By 2008, the total funding level had fallen below 73 percent. Recently defeated Governor Jon Corzine (D) emphasized the need to improve the state’s pension situation and increased funding in 2007 and 2008, but during the financial crisis, the resolve to do a better job of supporting the pension system all but vanished. According to Frederick Beaver, director of the New Jersey Division of Pensions and Benefits, New Jersey was supposed to pay about $2.3 billion in 2009 but contributed just $105 million. For 2010, the amount required was about $2.5 billion, but just $150 million was budgeted.” Our peeved Governor Christie is currently refusing to pay the $150 million.

The political difficulties are formidable and painful. The legislature is naturally hesitant to antagonize government employees who, at the least, vote in elections and, at worst, can turn into powerful political foes. Hence the Senators joined arms in voting for the recent package, with nary a single nay vote lest those in favor be targeted in primaries and elections. There also is a question of fairness. Should employees who have been counting on retirement benefits and who have considered them to be part of ongoing compensation suddenly discover that those benefits have disappeared? Hence, with the recent Senate package, the proposed reforms are directed only at new employees, with the exception of the added 1.5% health benefit levy.

As Scott Weingart pointed out in a recent diary, The Police State, Governor Christie has not asked all unions to share in the burden. Nor have state authorities so far been included in the pension reforms. Other approaches, some of which have been implemented to varying degrees, include 1) reducing benefits further or increasing the retirement age further; 2) sharing the risk with employees; 3) increasing employee contributions; 4) ending “double-dipping,” and 5) improving governance and investment oversight.

Nonetheless, the bottom line problem remains: New Jersey is 49th among States states that most recently paid the highest percentage of their annual required contribution for pension plans. Having drastically underfunded the Plan, we now find ourselves owing far more as a result, and if we postpone paying the bill the debt will increase even more significantly. Such will leave our state in worse shape and make it ever more difficult to meet our education, health care and other pressing needs.  Our governor’s threat to withhold the meagre $150 million current payment is reprehensible.  What would be worse is if we do not quickly return to making the full annual payment and continue to do so in succeeding years.

End NJ Reaping Blood Money through Inhumane Immigrant Detention

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

Our federal government is dithering on immigration reform. The recently created NJ group, Latino Action Network, is rightly despairing of any action this year. However, such does not stop NJ from instituting reform of its own.  

Local NJ counties and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can only be viewed as shameful in their treatment of incarcerated immigrants. It is time for NJ to end the cruel and inhumane practices in its detention centers.  

These counties, including Union, Bergen, Hudson, Essex and Monmouth, have reaped big money – blood money –  for their coffers by renting out over-priced, under-serviced, and over- crowded jail space to ICE for locking up immigrants.  Conditions are often squalid. Medical care has been limited and sometimes non-existent. The food is often so bad that there have been hunger strikes. Visitation rights are cumbersome and hours are limited. Nationally documented cases of deaths resulting from negligence and abuse have been reported. Should our counties be in the business of generating extra income through mistreatment of immigrants?

ICE, a unit of Homeland Security, not only countenances such practices but aggravates them.  They make it difficult for concerned family and relatives to find out where immigrants are incarcerated.  They frequently move immigrants from one facility to another.  No sooner  does a public advocate begin to help a detainee than the person may be moved to another location.  So bad were some of  the practices in the NYC Varick facility that ICE recently began transferring its detainees to a Hudson County jail in Kearny and to other NJ centers. Will they be better off in NJ? The NJ and NY ACLU recently wrote to Homeland Security expressing grave concern.

Congratulations to those individuals who staged a ten-mile walk last week from the foot bridge for Ellis Island to the Elizabeth Detention Center to highlight the plight of immigrant detainees. “America’s greatness is represented by the Statue of Liberty over there, not the Elizabeth Detention Center,” said Shai Goldstein, spokesman for the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network.

The problems regarding ICE’s deportation system, of course are broader. As the NY and NJ  ACLU group indicated in their letter, “Detention itself is a relatively new, costly, and inappropriate response to other problems within the deportation system that are better addressed by true alternatives to detention aimed at reducing rather than expanding the detention system as a whole.” The Ellis Island organizers seek an overhaul of immigration policy and want to see “community-based alternatives to detention as well as judicial discretion in the deportation.”

In the meantime local immigrant detention continues to be characterized by inhumanity, secrecy and greed. NJ should undertake its own reform and assure that humane standards are being met in our detainee jails.

So far local jails have made only token improvements. In his budget address to the legislature Governor Christie said, “For those who stay in the corner defending parochial interests, please be on notice – people will band together and drag you to the center of the room to make our state the place we know it can be.”  Go for it Governor! Or else the courts should intervene.

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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!