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 Economy Sucks! Help!

“After you, Alphonse,” says Gaston. “No, Gaston, after you,” is the reply. And with neither willing to proceed before the other, both are stymied. Nothing gets done.

In February 2009 President Obama and Congress enacted the almost $1 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act to stimulate our economy.  Governor Corzine and the legislature also enacted stimulus measures, including a package of four bills in December 2008. These were smart measures but insufficient for the Great Recession.

Today we see continuing high unemployment, disastrously low home sales, a declining stock market, and the threat of a double-dip recession. In a speech yesterday Mr. Obama says his economic team will identify additional measures, but his administration is stymied by congress (particularly the Senate) which lacks enthusiasm for further stimulus. Our own legislature passed a homebuyers tax rebate program but was stymied by Governor Christie. Even the Fed is running out of tools to stimulate growth.

Consumers, concerned about their own job and fearing the economy, have increased their savings rate to 6% (it used to be about 0% four years ago) and are not consuming. Businesses, with similar concerns about the economy and with a lack of increased demand from consumers, are not investing or unable to get bank loans.  Hence Messieurs Alphonse and Gaston. Both are waiting for an improved economy.  

Given the upcoming midterm elections and the Republican mantra of  “Just Say No,” help from Washington, except for a possible SBA loan program, seems unlikely. Christie displays no interest in growing jobs (he is too busy cutting them) or in stimulating the economy (he is too busy with his narrow focus on the rich.) “Winston Smith” refers to this as “authoritarian kick down and kiss up.”

So we are left with our NJ legislators to create solutions. For small  businesses that want to grow but can not get bank loans a SBA type program would help. Stimulus targeted toward improving our infrastructure creates jobs more quickly and benefits our future. Expanding funding for job training and education helps employees and businesses and strengthens our competitiveness.  Investing in new technology firms has a similar impact. Even offering smart tax exemptions to new businesses can have benefits that exceed their cost.

Either our economy continues indefinitely in the doldrums, or somehow we have to get both Alphonse and Gaston through the door. Central Jersey Assembly Members Linda R. Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) and Wayne P. DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) are about to unveil their seven-bill Business Expansion and Jobs Plan aimed at helping small businesses weather the current economic climate. Lets hope that they and other legislators come up with innovative solutions. We can’t count on our self-serving governor to help, but as time goes on maybe even he will realize “It’s about the economy, stupid.”  

Christie and NJEA: Work Together for NJ

The failure of NJ to receive a Race to the Top (RTTT) award after two attempts further lays bare the rift between NJEA and Governor Christie – a rift that also existed with prior administrations but grew more bitter during the current year. Tenure reform, merit pay, teacher evaluation, layoffs, and student performance data are some of the divisive issues. The governor’s antagonistic attitude and frequent frontal attacks against teachers exacerbate the problem. For NJ to maintain excellence in education both groups need to work together for solutions.

The infamous failure during Christie’s re-write to answer properly a simple question regarding 2008-09 education funding resulted in the deduction of 4.8 points. The panel reviewer score sheet indicates that as the total number of points possible was 500, and NJ received a score of 437.8, reviewers deducted 62.2 points throughout the proposal. A look at the technical review form indicates the categories in which the reviewers deducted points and suggests areas that must be addressed in discussions between the governor and NJEA.

Securing local education associations (LEA) commitment and translating its participation into state-wide impact – 14 points deducted.  Reviewers in the first round noted that only 387 out of 656 districts agreed to participate and only four district presidents provided a signature, and they felt that “this lack of greater involvement will challenge NJ’s efforts to meet its goals.” In the second round they said that “while the lack of union support may create some problems, it now seems that implementation can proceed with existing LEA support.”

Using broad stakeholder support – 4 points deducted. Reviewers: “The lack of support from 269 districts and the NJEA leaders supports a low rating.”  

Fully implementing a state-wide data system – 10 points deducted. Reviewers: “NJ has implemented only 7 of the 12 elements of a state-wide system”

Using data to improve instruction – 5 points deducted. Reviewers: “NJ does not provide a researcher’s perspective on what studies the data will be used for.”

Using evaluation to inform key decisions – 3 points deducted. Reviewers: Participating local districts understand that they must use evaluation data to inform professional development, compensation, and tenure. With over 40% of LEA’s not participating, the potential for state-wide impact may be limited.  

In conclusion the reviewers say overall our plan “is generally strong and well-designed and meets the absolute priority as a comprehensive approach to education reform.” However, the reviewers add, “The biggest question for this proposal is whether the reforms will truly make a statewide impact in light of the non-support of local and state NEA affiliates.”

Certainly in NJ we have the foundation for continued excellence and even stronger results. To move forward the governor must end his vitriol and return to negotiations, and NJEA must lower its resistance to some of the reforms and recommit itself to seeking solutions. The NJEA and Schundler moved closer toward healing the rift until the governor intervened and tore up their agreement. This rift hurts students, teachers and all New Jerseyans.  

Christie’s Dumb Remarks (Worst?) Press Conference

Christie in a press release Friday said, “I was extremely disappointed to learn that the videotape of the Race to the Top presentation was not consistent with the information provided to me by the New Jersey Department of Education and which I then conveyed to the people of New Jersey. As a result, I ordered an end to Bret Schundler’s service as New Jersey’s Education Commissioner.” He does not specify what information was inconsistent.  

The issue revolves around the fact that the Request for Proposals asked for education funding expenditures during the 2008-09 period but the state provided information for a later period. A definite “No No” in a grant.

The Star Ledger reported on what he “conveyed to the People of NJ” in his Wednesday press conference. It certainly was not his finest hour. Below are his quotes:

“The mistake was made by a mid-level official at the state Department of Education.” Such does not appear likely. NJEA has demonstrated that the version of the proposal prior to Christie deciding to have it re-written included the accurate data. Others have shown that a completely different response appeared in the re-written, final version, which covered a later period and provided a more favorable view of Christie and NJ education funding.

“Officials at the U.S. Department of Education could have easily either called New Jersey or found the information on the internet.” It is not up to grant reviewers to call or search the internet when an organization fails to answer a question correctly. During the video tape of the reviewers’ conference with the NJ team the reviewer sought to find out if the correct information was located elsewhere in the proposal. In fairness to other applicants the reviewer was not offering to accept revised data after the deadline.

“That’s the stuff the Obama administration should answer for.” Rather than being petulant, he might have accepted defeat more gracefully. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in his grant awards announcement was complimentary toward those not funded, indicated very few points separated them from the successful applicants, but said, “We had many more competitive applications than money to fund them in this round.” He also hopes for a third round next year.

“State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler gave the correct information to the U.S. Department of Education when giving his presentation two weeks ago.” Schundler disputes this fact saying “he never told the Governor he tried to add new information to the state’s application – which would have been against the rules.” There is no indication in the video he tried to provide such information. He says he warned Christie both in e-mails and in person not to make such a claim.

Note to the Governor: Trying to re-write a large and complex proposal over a long weekend when so much is at stake is a fool’s errand. Errors creep in and there is the danger of making spur-of-the moment changes that have not been well thought out. Also why did NJ not send a delegation to the Technical Assistance Workshop? 41 other states did. It might have helped.  

“Pride, Precision, and Professionalism”

What events in NJ attract a crowd of over 600,000 people? Izod Arena holds 23,000 and Meadowlands stadium holds over 60,000. One of the few event I can think of is a result of intensive training, winnowing of candidates, incredible guts, supreme determination, laser-like focus, and the highest level of professionalism. Unfortunately it’s not our NJ politicians. It’s the air force Thunderbirds and colleagues – a total of 80 pilots who flew in the Atlantic City Air Show on Wednesday dazzling us with their skills, death-defying aerobatics, and precision teamwork.

It’s not that we haven’t had great political leaders in New Jersey. Today a person like Senator Loretta Weinberg who started as Assistant Administrator to the County of Bergen, and then went on to become a Teaneck Councilwoman, Assemblywoman, Senator and LG candidate is an example to emulate. Our own Jeff  Gardner first spent time learning the craft and then mobilized Democrats in his town to take over the Democratic committee.

Politics, above the introductory level, should be a vocation not an avocation. People with huge sums of money and zero political experience should not assume they are qualified for a high position. Those who are idolized only as a sports hero lack the training. Those who hold multiple positions lack the focus and are subject to conflicts of interest. They also need to understand what they do not know and avoid micromanagement, like thinking their office has the skills to direct the rewrite of a complex grant. As in all professions, politics requires training and ongoing education. Starting at a local level is an important step. Mastering new media is a virtual requirement today. Working smart and total immersion are necessary. A variety of groups including DFA provide the nuts and bolts for beginners. Garden State Equality recently offered a seminar to its constituency.

I don’t particularly want a Thunderbird pilot as a NJ governor or legislator. But I sure would like politicians to receive more training and education before assuming midlevel or high positions and then to display more professionalism, focus, dedication and teamwork. If such were to happen maybe our leaders would have a higher voter approval, more voter turn out at the polls, and a level of enthusiasm, interest, and respect somewhat closer to what the Thunderbirds receive. And it’s up to all of us to insist on higher standards.

To read about Wednesday’s event and view videos of the air show go to The Press of Atlantic City or the Thunderbirds website. Their motto: “Pride, Precision, and Professionalism.”

“A Platform Is a Terrible Thing To Waste”

Some may remember during the early days of the Christie administration there was chatter about the fact that the governor had hired at $60,000 someone to handle his Twitter account. Well it turns out according to a study of U. S. Senators that Republicans have sharper social media skills than Democrats. The Digital IQ Index: U.S. Senators study was authored by George Washington University School of Business Dean Doug Guthrie, and NYU Stern Associate Professor of Marketing Scott Galloway.  The study examined senators’ online competence including his or her presence on websites, social media following and sentiment, digital marketing aptitude and search engine optimization skills.

Although it is can be difficult to know the exact cause and effect, the study points out, for example, than in Massachusetts Scott Brown garnered 10 times the number of Facebook interactions and YouTube views than did Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. Further studies will compare more closely digital I.Q with election predictability and results, but this study underscores the importance that digital media has today for politicians.

There are messages here for our Democratic Representatives currently waging their election campaigns. Certainly some, as has been discussed on Blue Jersey, seem digitally savvier than others. As the authors say, “A platform is a terrible thing to waste.”  

The study reveals that “Republican senators are savvier online and are acquiring Facebook “likes” and Twitter “followers” at a greater rate than Democratic senators. The study also demonstrates that “senators up for re-election lead on every social media platform, highlighting the push (need for votes) and pull (increased recognition and awareness) effect of campaigns.”  

In the study New Jersey Senator Menendez ranked 19 (Gifted) and Lautenberg 57 (Average) out of the 100 Senators. Senator John McCain, who during the 2008 election said “I don’t e-mail,” ranked 1 (Genius). Let’s remember that McCain can be passionate and outspoken, but, as with Governor Christie, he and others can hire a Twitter Chief.  And media does matter.

“Special Interest” PACs

          “And the money kept rolling in from every side

          When the money keeps rolling in, you don’t ask how.”

                                                   (Tim Rice: Evita)

When the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) reported last week on 2009 Political Action Committees (PACs) spending, much of the attention was on the fact that labor unions were New Jersey’s biggest spenders. The Star Ledger pointed out Governor Christie’s past unsuccessful efforts to put public workers unions under the same pay-to-play restrictions on campaign donations as private companies that seek government contracts.

Overlooked in the discussion was the growth of New Jersey PAC’s with generic sounding names that spend their funds to benefit a particular candidate or party. In releasing the report, Jeffrey Brendle, ELECs Executive Director, highlighted the problem:  

We suspect that there is a growing number of so-called “special interest” PACs in recent years that really appear to be appendages of parties or candidates. For some, it is just an extra way to promote a particular candidate. One clue to this activity was a much higher turnover rate between 2005 and 2009 within the three PAC categories – other ongoing, ideological, and civic associations – that are most vaguely defined.  Turnover by these types of PACs was about five times the rate exhibited by professional, union or regulatory industry PACs. It becomes a problem, however, if the PACs are used to try to circumvent state contribution limits. For instance, public contractors generally are subject to a $300 limit.

ELEC commissioners on a bi-partisan basis have recommended that the legislature empower ELEC to prevent one group from establishing numerous PAC’s which may be designed to evade contribution limits under “pay-to-play” laws. With the ongoing review of gaming activities and the governor’s plans for privatization such is long overdue.

The situation has been made more complex with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. Nonetheless, the rapidly increasing funding directed to politicians calls out for reform. The New Jersey Coalition for Clean Elections is a “statewide coalition dedicated to reducing the corrupting influence of money in politics and establishing a permanent, state-wide system of full public campaign financing.” If you are unfamiliar with the group, check it out.

There Will Be Blood: North vs. South

“We laughed together, we stood together

We were almost one

then that fatal day you changed on me,

now the war has begun

I take a look in your eyes, I don’t like what I see.”

                 (Texas Chainsaw Massacre Soundtrack Lyrics: Sworn Enemy)

I was born in Delaware. City life was in the north. In the south there were predominately beaches and farms. Sound familiar? The two areas never got along well with each other. During the Civil War, the south wanted to secede and the northern area did not. The capitol, Dover, was in the middle where the warring parties gathered to fight their battles.

We have a battle today in Trenton between the north and the south. The stakes are gigantic with large sums of money involved: gaming and the future of Atlantic City vs. gaming and the future of the Meadowlands.  Powerful people, including casino executives, politicians, and entrepreneurs who want a piece of the action or to deny a region a piece of the action, have big stakes in the results. The little guy is like roadkill.  I can already hear the ominous soundtrack of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There will be winners and losers, and there will be blood.

According to the Statehouse Bureau as reported on Sunday in the Press of Atlantic City, Gov. Christie and  Senate President Sweeney are coming closer to agreement on Atlantic City. The sticking point, Sweeney said, is semantics: “I want a private-public partnership, not public-private.” Sweeney heads the Senate and the powerful bloc of South Jersey lawmakers. Casino executives, of course, are fiercely protective of their turf and oppose gaming expansion in the north.

Other players representing Atlantic City include Sen James Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor, who introduced a bill designed to make it easier for companies to build smaller casinos. John Burzichelli (D-Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem) says we need to ensure “that our gaming, sports and horse racing industries continue to have a viable future, built around the strong backbone of Atlantic City.” Union County Sen. Lesniak has introduced a bill to legalize internet gambling in Atlantic City, which would require federal approval.

But Assembly Leader Oliver says, the proposal is unlikely to win immediate broad support in the Legislature. There are equal numbers of northern New Jersey legislators that have strong feelings about the potential of the Meadowlands.”

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) have stated, “Gov. Chris Christie should reject any plan that has the state shed itself of the Meadowlands race track.” Wagner said “video lottery terminals could generate $700 million annually in state revenue and create up to 2,000 new jobs.” Caputo is a member of the committee which will review the gaming commission’s report. Sen. Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D- Middlesex) has co-sponsored S638 which would install more than 5,000 lottery games using VTL’s at or adjacent to the Meadowlands Racetrack.

Sen. Budget Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) says the governor is pitting the north vs. the south. He supports VTL’s. He has also argued that The Meadowlands needs a world-class casino – not just a “racino” with video lottery terminals.” Sports Authority Chairman Carl Goldberg has said the Meadowlands would be the most valuable parcel of real estate for the expansion of gaming, maybe not only in the U.S., but the world.”

Christie and Sweeney support the southern plan, but the northern axis also has a large block. The saga will continue again in mid-September with a legislative gaming committee meeting at the Meadowlands. Ultimately there will be compromises, but with so much at stake I can hear the chainsaw soundtrack swelling.  There will be blood.

P.S. I was born in northern Delaware and live in northern New Jersey.

Wyclef Jean Disqualified to Run As President

          “Election time is coming.

          If I was president,

          I’d get elected on Friday, assasinated on Saturday,

          and buried on Sunday.”

                                                      (Wyclef Jean)

The Star Ledger reported Saturday that Haitian born Wyclef Jean, who lives in Saddle River, was eliminated as a candidate for President of Haiti because he did not meet the five year residency requirement. An idol to Haitians and a shoo-in for President, he said he will not contest the decision.

A musical genius, his stint with the South Orange/Newark area Fugees and his Carnival album continue to reverberate in my mind. He remains prolific with lyrics in both English and Creole. He also tours, serves as a hip-hop producer, and creates music for films.

Although it seems unlikely he would be assasinated today, his talents as a candidate, manager and President are unproven. Instead he can now continue on his musical path and remain active as an advocate for Haitians in Haiti and in New Jersey. Matters in Haiti remain dire, and those coming to NJ experience difficulty in receiving services.  For more information go to NJ4Haiti, a collection of government agencies and non-profit organizations.

In the same above song Wyclef talks about the effects of war:

         “I know some soldiers that sleep but they can’t dream,

          Wake up with screams, sounds of them succeed.

          Sounds of M-16s

          So take this metal of honor

          For your bravery

          I wish you the best kid–you and your family.”

Sen. Sweeney To Resign Freeholder Position

 AP reported Friday afternoon that State Senate President, union official, and Freeholder President Stephen Sweeney says he will resign his position on the Gloucester County Freeholder Board by the end of this year. He thus fulfills a promised he had previously made. PolitickeNJ quotes him as saying, “It’s time I’m winding up one career and focusing on where I’m at.”

A judge had ruled in July that the Gloucester Freeholder Board had violated the Sunshine Law and that a court-appointed monitor must be hired. On Thursday the Star Ledger reported that Retired Judge John Sweeney (no relative of the senator) was named the Gloucester County’s Compliance Officer and will begin overseeing the board starting September 1.

On Wednesday Governor Chris Christie signed into law a bill (S-763/A-2078) sponsored by Sweeney which authorizes the director of a board of freeholders, with the consent of a majority of members, to exercise veto power over proposed actions of county authorities.  Freeholder Executive Directors in those counties where there is such a position, already have the veto authority. However, many counties such as Gloucester do not have such a position so their board gains new power. Politicker NJ quotes him as saying, he’s “seen knucklehead decisions where this power would have come in handy.”

With his resignation he will not have much time to exercise this new power. Presumably, however, he will have more time to focus on his role as Senate President, a position he assumed  the beginning of the current session after dethroning Sen. Codey.  Sweeney got off to a quick start by supporting Governor Christie in creating initial pension reforms. Again working with Christie he helped to avert a state shut-down, but he allowed the budget bill, replete with cuts, to pass with little challenge. He negotiated quietly with the governor on a 2% property tax cap bill which has met a mixed reaction. On two issues of particular interest to progressives, he failed  in his effort to enact a higher tax rate for millionaires, and just prior to becoming Senate President he voted against marriage for same-sex couples.

Although he ranks number two in Trenton power circles, so far he and the legislature have been overshadowed by the more dominant and insistent personality of the governor.  With the legislature returning in September, he will have another opportunity to display renewed leadership, more independence from the governor, and creative Democratic solutions needed to address current social and financial issues.    

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”

After WW II Johnny’s return was greeted with “Hurrah Hurrah.” After Vietnam his return was not so happy. Yesterday the last combat troops left Iraq, and gradually Johnny and Jane will return to New Jersey. They leave behind a country with significant unresolved issues and a war for which the results are yet to be determined. Of the 50,000 (plus contractors) who are staying in Iraq, many will not be immune to combat. Of those who are leaving, many will be reassigned to Afghanistan or other theaters. Other New Jerseyans will continue to be assigned there to join the “non-combatants.”

Most returning to New Jersey are excited to be reunited with loved ones and friends and feel a huge sense of relief. However, they face an unemployment rate about double our 9.7%. (Nationally for veterans the rate is 21%.) Many have physical wounds and ailments requiring treatment from our overburdened VA hospitals. Most will experience some level of post-traumatic stress disorder, in some cases severe enough to lead to suicide. Earlier this month, Rep. Rush Holt (NJ-12) hosted a forum for hundreds of Central New Jersey veterans  addressing concerns about health care, the GI Bill, veterans employment, and other issues.

Medical needs for vets are substantial and will be long-lasting. The VA offers 5 years of free health care and a 180 day dental benefit. However for those who need in-patient care there is no VA hospital in southern NJ. Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, hopes to change that. Also there are long waits for appointments throughout the system.

A NJ Senate committee released this week a non-partisan bill that would provide an income tax credit up to $10,000 to veterans who require psychological counseling and treatment. Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) said she will also introduce a separate measure calling on Congress to pass a bill requiring that returnees receive a telephone call from properly trained personnel to determine their emotional, psychological, medical, and career needs and concerns at least once every 90 days.

“Vet-2-Vet,” a toll-free confidential help line, created five years ago by the NJ Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and UMDNJ responds to over 3,000 calls a year, but operates on year-to-year funding. Sen. Fred Madden (D-Turnersville) introduced legislation that would require the state to permanently fund the program.

Caldwell College held a Jobs Fair last week for vets, and more such fairs are needed. The VA provides some help with its website Vet Success which connects vets and employers. The NJ Department of Military and Veterans Affairs provides small individual and business grants. For others who  want to continue their education there is the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

What can we do? Welcome vets home with open arms. Support legislation for better medical care, counseling and job services. Encourage employers to hire vets. Urge our government to withdraw even more troops from Iraq and start the process immediately to bring an end to our fruitless war in Afghanistan.