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.

Budget: Read, Weep and Protest

The Treasury Department has just placed on the web more details about Governor Christie’s budget.  We can read and weep, but we should also protest. Below the fold is a selection of his cuts. Here is the full list.

Many of the cuts strike those most vulnerable: elderly, low-income, disabled, and sick.  But there is also pain for the middle class. These cuts will have very little impact on the wealthy who as of now can look forward to reduced taxes.

Between the cuts listed below the fold and others on the full kill list there is plenty of opportunity to let the governor and legislature know that many of these cuts will do more harm than good.  We need to increase taxes for the wealthiest and make smart investments to ease our way out of the Great Recession.

NJ Finances: Unsurprising, Sobering & a Call to Action

 

An April 6 report in Bloomberg indicates, “NJ will get about $250 million less revenue than Governor Christie projected for this fiscal year and next because of lagging retail sales taxes.” This news is not surprising.  Most state budgets tend to underestimate their projected net return. Also, we are undergoing the steepest and longest recession since the Great Depression.

The report is sobering because in the Bloomberg article, David Rosen, Legislative Budget and Finance Officer, projects: “At the state’s average growth rate of 5 percent annually, revenues won’t return to 2008 levels until 2014.” Such a slow recovery would be catastrophic for the most vulnerable, very unpleasant for lower/middle class residents, and harm our future. We would be mired in mud for four years and less able to take advantage when the economy improves.

A slow recovery is not inevitable if the legislature takes this news as a further call to increase investments that assure a safety net, aid individuals in getting back to work, maintain key infrastructure, pay down some debt, and foster confidence in business. NJ remains the second wealthiest U.S. state in per-capita income. This is the time to spend a little more not less. Invest now and then save as better times arrive.

This news should give the legislature more incentive to increase the tax rate on brackets for income over $250,000. In addition, a recent state report released quietly by the governor indicates, “New Jersey foregoes more than $15 billion a year in tax revenue through various credits, deductions, exemptions and other special provisions in the state’s tax code.” The governor and legislature should follow up on this report in order to generate more revenue.

Smart businesses, when confronted with a downturn, will reduce certain expenditures, but more importantly to assure growth they emphasize investments to increase new revenue, as for example both Apple and Microsoft have done in difficult periods. Compare them with firms which confronted by a downturn cut their expenses and lower the price of their products for Walmart only to find themselves revenue-depleted in a downward spiral.

A smart $2 billion increase in expenditures, coupled with a similar short-term increase from the two above-mentioned tax sources, will do more to help us out of the mud than mean-spirited, ill-advised cuts proposed by our governor. Activists have already been advocating strongly against certain cuts. This should be a call to action for all civic-minded individuals: make the investments we need to assure a better future for NJ.

Bring Our Troops Home Now

The Star Ledger reported, Scott Brunkhorst, 25, a graduate of Bridgewater-Raritan High School, and weapons squadron leader, was killed in Afghanistan on March 29. He died after stepping on an improvised explosive device as he got out of his truck. He was the 96th NJ soldier to die in our current Afghan and Iraqi wars.

On March 1 according to the NY Times,President Karzai delivered a scorching attack on  the West for its conduct in Afghanistan, which the White House called “troubling.” Mr. Karzai’s speech, coming just days after President Obama visited him in Kabul, laid bare the deep mistrust between the leaders and their governments even as the United States has tripled its troop commitment. Mr. Karzai, American officials said, was still stinging from a political defeat after Parliament on Wednesday rejected a revision of the electoral law that would have allowed him to appoint all the members of an agency that investigates electoral irregularities.”

How can one expect any form of success in such a fragile country where the President is not a willing or trustworthy partner, his government corrupt, his troops often incompetent, his election suspect, and his brother in Kandahar profiting from drug sales? The people of Afghanistan do not trust their government, are fearful of Afghan soldiers, and sometimes prefer the Taliban. Why should Americans have any more confidence in the Afghan government or the American mission? Over the weekend Karzai repeated antagonistic statements about the West leaving little room for the US to maneuver with him.

Meanwhile in Iraq, the leaders are arguing over the formulation of a new government. NY Times reported on April 1, “Iran may seem an unlikely place to turn for guidance when it comes to putting together a democratic government. The ink was hardly dry on the polling results when three of the four major Iraqi political alliances rushed delegations off to Tehran. Yet none of them sent anyone to the United States Embassy here, let alone to Washington.” In the meantime, violence increased over the weekend.

Our control over violence and our influence over the governments in these two countries are rapidly diminishing. Ultimately it will be the Iraqi and Afghan people who will set their own course. Forget victory.

End our two wars.  Bring our troops home now.

Fewer Cuts – More Spending

Our governor’s approach to today’s problems are hurting the middle class and those  most vulnerable by threatening huge budget cuts and a tax cut at a time when judicious tax increases and added spending make more sense. It’s not just our budget which is suffering. It is our economy. And more importantly it is our citizens who have lost savings and pension in the market, seen their home prices sink below the level of their mortgage, and have become under- or un-employed, with banks treating them like prey.

More needs to be  done to harness the state’s revenues in a proactive, positive manner. For the short-term Christie should increase taxes for wealthier residents and increase expenditures. An enlarged budget of about $2 billion would provide a better safety net for the most vulnerable and investments to generate recovery. Penny-wise pound-foolish budgeting only serves to dig a bigger hole and make rebounding more difficult. Ultimately it is wise government, not less government nor more government, which is most beneficial.  

The key is not to add to our debt, accomplished by increasing the tax rate on higher brackets and expending only such funds as become available through the added revenue. Equally important is to pay more into our self-funded debt, such as pension, and not enlarge our outside debt, such as highway bonds. Merrill Lynch said on Monday that New Jersey’s debt should be downgraded to reflect the cost of paying its retiree pensions and health care. In effect, Wall Street analysts are more concerned by a state’s debt overload, and as businessmen they can understand wise investments. What is needed  is to keep our budget in balance and not use accounting to mask debt or project unlikely revenue sources.

Funds raised through a progressive tax schedule can serve as investments. Done on a short-term two-year basis, it should not increase the flight of the wealthy as other states are adopting stern measures, and the wealthy can not quickly or easily liquidate assets such as their expensive homes in order to move elsewhere.

Penny-wise, pound-foolish approaches abound in our governor’s budget, which, if reversed will help. Defunding women’s health clinics, hurts their health, makes them less employable and increases the burden on more expensive emergency rooms which then seek reimbursement elsewhere. Does the governor think that reducing access to library books, a source of free job training and skills enhancement, will help the unemployed? Any increase of mass transit fares during a recession reduces people’s job opportunities. Will refusing to pay into the pension fund help to recruit and retain good state employees or help to hold onto an acceptable credit rating?  Attacking TAG college tuition grants is no way help prepare people for the job market.

Housing is another example of an area in which government investments can help. The decrease of 8% in Northern New Jersey home prices in 2009 is a harbinger of continuing economic malaise. As the Record points out, “For most people, who are neither buying nor selling, lower values reduce household wealth, making consumers less willing – and able – to borrow and spend. This lost housing wealth has added to a sense of unease about the economy.” Until prices stabilize, new home construction workers, remodeling contractors, real estate agents, Home Depot type staff, and others face continued unemployment. In California, with a budget probably even more stressed than ours, Business Week indicates, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last Thursday signed a bill aimed at selling California’s vacant homes and encouraging new construction by extending a $10,000 state tax credit for first-time homebuyers.

Our governor already advocates more taxes – retrogressive fees on those who can afford them least – while harshly cutting government services and the higher-bracket tax rate. A two-year return to the $400,000 income tax rate by itself would yield approximately $1 billion, and additional rates at the $250,000 and $750,000 bracket could provide another $1 billion. With government investments more people can obtain employment, and both individuals and businesses can recover – creating a “virtuous cycle” rather than a downward spiral or a lengthy “stuck- in-the-mud” period. Then our Governor will still have time in office to cut the budget, reduce some taxes, and increase our surplus.

What I am advocating represents less than a 8% budget increase. It is the government’s role to invest in hard times when citizens are in most need, and put on the brakes in the good times . We need smart, but increased expenditures and taxes now. Citizens and the legislature should urge this wiser approach.  

POWER TO THE STUDENTS!

In his recent diary Nick Lento speaks movingly about Cliffside Park students protesting Christie’s school cuts. It’s great to see students becoming activists. We have gone through periods when they were politically uninvolved. Most recently we have admired young Iranian students courageously taking their lives in their hands to to protest corrupt elections.

Rutgers has a rich tradition of activism. For Paul Robeson just staying and excelling at Rutgers (1915-1919) was a form of activism as other students wanted him off the football team and gone from the university. In 1957 fraternity men attended a demonstration in Trenton protesting financial cutbacks. (Now there is an idea to follow up on.) Students protested for anti-segregation in the 60’s and supported jailed integration activist Donald Harris in 1963. Black students took over Conklin Hall in 1969. In the 80’s these students supported El Salvador, Palestinian rights, Lebanon, and Puerto Rico. Later they supported University President Bloustein in his principled stance against apartheid.

As a child in Argentina I saw students protest against Juan and Eva Peron. An outspoken activist at my school was thrown off a train and lost a leg, but Peron was deposed.  Later living in the Bay area, I witnessed activism at UC Berkeley where Mario Savio led the Free Speech movement. The university had banned all campus political activity and fundraising, but this firebrand changed Berkeley forever.

More recently students have brought energy, ideas, and enthusiasm to lots of activist causes. Many of the NJ ACT UP members were young local students who were fighting both their own grave health problems and an apathetic government.

At a recent Garden State Equality Town Hall Meeting several students were among the most articulate speakers. High school and college students from across NJ converged in Trenton for the Senate ME rallies. Others helped on the phone bank. Some were dispatched with cell phones to neighborhoods where they urged people to call their local legislators.  The gay activist movement itself in NJ has a long history. It gained momentum at the time of Stonewall, followed by the formation of the Gay Activist Alliance of NJ, and demonstrations and lobbying to strengthen the anti-discrimination law.

On March 26 when NJ students started skipping class to protest teacher layoffs, our Governor-General said, “They’re being used. I don’t blame the kids at all. They’re pawns.” Well Governor, I’d be careful if I were you. These “pawns” have taken on bigger men than you and rocked our world.  Power to the students!

“Good Jobs Now! – Make Wall Street Pay”

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

Teaneck, a progressive community, not only feels the pain of the recession but has a tradition as a willing host for protest demonstrations. With attention now moving away from health care reform, President Obama and congress have to address the public’s most pressing three concerns: Jobs, Jobs, and Jobs. AFL-CIO has launched a nation-wide series of rallies “Good Jobs Now! – Make Wall Street Pay.” Teaneck was a site last night for 30 demonstrators.  It was in front of a branch of Bank of America which brought upon itself congressional and criminal investigations and large fines over its purchase of Merrill-Lynch and sub-prime lender Countrywide.

“Good Jobs Now!” is a message which President Obama and congress need to hear and act upon.  NJ union and non-union members are suffering. Last week the President signed into law a jobs bill passed by the Senate with a vote of 68-29.  It gained Republican support because it was emasculated to provide tax relief to businesses hiring unemployed workers. This indirect route of fostering employment is not the strong measure needed. Unemployment remains very high (US: 10.4%, NJ 10:3%). Americans without a job, concerned about losing their job, reduced to a part-time position, or down-sized to a minimum wage role expect more. If the President focuses on jobs and does something about it, he will garner public support for other landmark legislation.  If people perceive him as disinterested, he should update his resume for a new position in 2013.

Union workers in the Teaneck demonstration were well aware of how banks have ripped us off. Their populist slogan is “Make Wall Street Pay.” Tim Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury, has never understood this populist rage. President Obama and congress must understand it to survive.   As AFL-CIO says in its flyer: “Big Wall Street banks helped cause the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Millions have lost their jobs, homes and retirement savings. But the biggest banks gave their execs $145 billion in pay and bonuses last year.” That makes me mad, and it should make Obama mad.  

Over a year into his administration the President has not yet signed a financial regulation bill. The House passed a bill, but in the glacier-like Senate, Chairman Dodd  has to find a few Republicans to raise the 60 votes needed or go through reconciliation. And the bill being constructed is tepid. Banks of course are spending millions to weaken the bill further. These are the same banks that took billions in taxpayer loans (bail-outs), borrow money from the Fed discount window at 0%, and are in no rush to help small business, credit card holders, or mortgagors.

I hope Obama joins in the spirit of the Teaneck demonstrators and repeats frequently that movie moment when Howard Beale screams, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Bergen Budget Hearings (and the Men’s Room)

There is a certain mystic and wonder that we uninformed men hold towards what happens and is discussed in the Women’s Room. However, the Men’s Room also provides opportunities for quick but interesting discussions. The corridors outside the main meeting room can be a place to preen before TV cameras, network with others, and get into lengthier conversations – all of course at this event without the benefit of coffee and donuts, being a spartan State affair, which means that a separate room with these goodies is available for legislators but not other attendees. Nonetheless, I (as a male) put my money on the Men’s Room as the place for information.  But I digress.

At this public hearing led by Chair Paul Sarlo, the members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee asked almost no questions as they were trying to allow as many people as possible to speak. On one of the few occasions a Republic Senator questioned an NJEA spokesperson as to whether it would be reasonable for her members to accept a lower salary increase or pay freeze given the state’s problems – with no direct answer.  Our Bergen County Sheriff and County Executive were incensed over the Governor’s desire to end Blue Laws, and McNerney was understandably upset about the huge cuts the Governor has contrived for our county.

The agenda listed 76 speakers, although others such as local mayors and yours truly, were added to the list.  Some speakers were heads or representatives of large state or county organizations,  including Boards of Education, Hospital Association, and Commerce & Industry Assoc., but many represented smaller, often non-profit groups strongly advocating for important causes.  Some spoke as as individuals, such as a mother caring for two children with developmental disabilities. Quite a few advocated for reinstituting the $400,000 income tax bracket, but most, with a four-minute time restraint, concentrated on a single issue. No Tea Party folks enlivened this polite and decorous event. The room seated about 200, but certain speakers would appear with a large contingent of supporters, who left after the speech, only to be replaced by supporters for another speaker.

But I digress. In the Men’s Room Senator Paul Sarlo after a late night at the State House seemed both tired and energized over the amount of time and effort he and the committee were starting to put into the budget process. He emphasized he was working on the legislature’s budget, not the governor’s budget. He thought the governor was “just being mean,” and he seemed supportive of reinstating the tax rate on income over $400,000. When I suggested adding a new rate for those over $1 million, he joked (I think) about someone in the Men’s Room who was a millionaire and would not like the idea.

An example of the Governor’s mean streak, I think, is his desire to make it more difficult for low income patients with HIV to get their life-sustaining medications. The program to provide these medicines is funded by the federal government, but that does not stop our governor from wanting to add co-pays to those who desperately need but can not afford these high-priced pills.

In my presentation I advocated:

– Reinstate the $400,000 tax bracket which will yield $1 billion in revenue and suggested an intermediate $250,000 bracket and higher $1 million bracket.

– Make a token contribution, $300 million, to the pension plan.

– Increase or reinstitute funding for college tuition grants, property tax rebates for low-income senior citizens, health care services for low income women including family planning, public transportation, health insurance for legal immigrants, and mental health services.

– Take further steps to reduce incarceration for non-violent drug offenders.

– Increase funding for municipal services and school aid, but insist that consolidation take place. Programs and services are more important than a large number of redundant managers in our current parochial system.

I believe I got sympathetic nods from Democratic senators, but we will most likely have to wait until June 30 or hours later to have a final budget. The process is incredibly painful this year but kudos to those who speak out on behalf of the disenfranchised.

COAH Learns You Can Call Christie’s Bluff

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

With Executive Order #20 we saw how the governor, having dug himself into a hole with his earlier EO #12, suddenly and clumsily tried to extricate himself. We also learned that his bluster creates his own vulnerability. His initial EO #12 dated February 9 allowed him to create his own affordable housing task force and gave it 90 days until May 9th to complete its report which was then to be made public. During the interim he ordered COAH to cease its activities.

The fly in the ointment was that COAH quickly asked the court to grant an injunction against E O #12 which it did. Then  the court scheduled an argument on a permanent invalidation of E O #12 for Monday March 22. Suddenly on Friday afternoon, March 19, he  issued a new E O #20 which rescinded his E O #12. Did he suspect he would not be well received at the court hearing?  How convenient.



His EO # 20, dated March 19 was disingenuous.
It said that he was canceling E O #12 because the Task Force had suddenly completed  the report, in a record-breaking 6 weeks. However, the completion of the report did not necessitate canceling E O #12. What required the cancellation was the court’s questioning his ability to order COAH to cease its operations and his assumption of broad powers.  By canceling his E O #12 he was tacitly allowing COAH to resume its mandated operations.  Neither was there any mention of the court injunction in his E O #20.

As EO #12 was now cancelled, one might suspect that the supposed completed task force report will never see the light of the day.  Indeed, how could a quality report on such an important, complex topic even be completed in 6 weeks?

This is what happens when Christie is challenged and a court intervenes: a rescinding E.O. is issued,  a report is completed in 45 days, a task force’s efforts are closed out, there is no mention that COAH can resume its work, said report may or may not see the light of day, and there is no need to appear before a judge to answer pesky questions.

COAH learns you can call the Governor’s bluff.  He can and should be challenged frequently.  Organizations using the courts and the legislature using its authority need not be shy.

Forget Victory: End Our Two Wars Now

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

Are American political leaders so insecure that they need bombs bursting in air to give proof that our flag is still there? With two large wars in progress, and many more small to huge ones in our history, apparently the answer is “Yes.”  How little they learned from Vietnam and other past wars.  The flag remains in place, their judgment not so much.



Americans have trod heavily through the Middle East with ever-changing goals, creating new enemies with each step. In Finkel: The Good Soldiers, about the war in Iraq in 2007-8, President Bush says our actions will permit “this country to survive and thrive as a democracy.” A Colonel keeps saying, “It’s all good.” The soldiers say [extremely foul words.] The locals say, “If we talk to you, our neighbors will kill us.” So much for victory.

Al-Qaeda and their partners are terrorist hoodlums who should be treated as criminals. Fighting them in Afghanistan is like Wackamole; they run across the border to Pakistan, and they already have sites in at least three other countries to which they can move.  We have drones and Special Forces which, with local permission and local help, should be used to end these criminal activities – not a big, occupying army which is prey to hidden IED’s and which depletes our treasury.

Achieving victory through war is illusory when we “nation build” and meddle in other countries. In Afghanistan in the ’80’s we supported the Taliban against Russia, then we pushed them back and installed a corrupt, inept government, then we lost interest and turned to Iraq, and now we are back with renewed effort battling the forces of evil. We likewise fought two wars against Iraq and played a role in their earlier war with Iran. So much for our victory efforts. Ultimately, it is the Afghan and  Iraqi people who on their own initiative and in their own way will determine their future.

New Jersey recently buried Sgt. Marcos Gorra, 22, of North Bergen. He was on his first tour in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division. 95 NJ soldiers have died in the two current wars. Many, many more are returning to our state with PTSD, severe brain injury, and amputated limbs, facing an overcrowded and inadequate VA medical system and a life of despair.  We honor their efforts but we lament that their losses and suffering were so unnecessary.

These two wars undermine our domestic needs and further increase our Federal budget deficit. With certainty we can say they have created over 5,000 US soldier deaths and over 450,000 returning veterans to be treated by the VA. We have bequeathed a great deal of suffering to the Iraqi and Afghan people, perhaps as many as  800,000 deaths.  It is with NO certainty that we can trumpet any victory now nor in the future.

The press pays little attention to these wars. Republicans, some Democrats and our President are complicit in prolonging them. President Obama “surged” our troop level in Afghanistan and created a troop reduction date which later turned out to be ephemeral. If in Iraq there is extended wrangling over forming a new government or violence increases, our president might well be under pressure from Iraqi or US military leaders to extend the stay or not reduce troop levels. That is not what he campaigned on, and it is not what he should do.  Forget Victory. NJ citizens and our Senators and Representatives should be adamant: “BRING OUR TROOPS HOME NOW.”

HOW CHRISTIE DEFINES & FILLS THE GAP

To understand better how the budget is being balanced and what Governor Christie proposes cutting, see the below data from page 64 of his budget Plan.  

The Treasury Department adds the FY 2010 appropriation and the FY 2011 anticipated net growth for a Total Projected Model from which it subtracts FY 2011 anticipated Revenue to arrive at an FY 2011 Projected Structural gap of $10.736 billiion.

Underneath are the proposed cuts of $10.736 billion to bring the budget into balance.  The legislature of course will make some modifications, but reading through these cuts gives us a clearer idea of what programs are being reduced and by how much. The biggest cut is $3 billion in pension, but there are a lot of large, painful reductions.

Of course one can say he is exaggerating the gap, or point out that if he continues the tax rate on incomes over $400,000 the gap would be less or one can reapportion individual cuts, or dispute any and all figures in the plan – but if left unaltered below is what we are stuck with.

Hopefully this provides us a better basis upon which to further our debate.

(Sorry I haven’t figured out how BJ formats columns.)

(000 omitted)

FY 2010 Adjusted Appropriation 29,862,146

FY 2011 Net Growth 8,540,209

FY 2011 Total Projected Model 38,402,355

FY 2011 Base Revenue 27,665,900

FY 2011 Projected Structural Gap 10,736,455

Reductions to Base Budget 1,929,241

 Homeowner and Tenant Rebates 848,200

 Municipal and County Aid 339,021

 Higher Education 175,375

 Operating Budget and Interdepartmental 163,989

 Medicaid/PAAD 92,929

 Senior Tax Freeze 53,700

 Savings from Privatization 50,000

 Human Services Contracts 35,600

 General Assistance Benefits for the AbleBodied 23,445

 Child Care Programs 19,800

 Employee Actions   8,799

 Other 118,383

Elimination or Reduction of Projected Growth 7,082,720

 Pensions       3,060,543

 Limit School Aid Increases      1,677,500

 Inflationary Increase for Rebates      1,163,100

 NJ Transit 272,000

 Medicaid 236,059

 Rate Inflation for Nursing Homes 56,612

 Inflationary Increase for Higher Education 45,994

 Other 570,912

Elimination of Programs 216,620

        Subtotal              9,228,581

Enhanced Federal Medicaid Funding 490,569

Resource Solutions 601,549

Supported by Non-State Resources 415,756            

FY 2011 Projected Structural Gap    10,736,455