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.

OPRA’s Unanswered Questions

Three OPRA requests, by Sen. Weinberg, Sen Buono, and Asbury Park Press, have not yet elicited a response. Each might answer a fundamental question regarding actions of the governor and his  staff.

Sen. Buono’s request deals with the cause of a flubbed response to a question that might have made the difference in the RTTT grant between being funded and not funded. Former Education Commissioner Schundler said he made a mistake in requesting that data for 2010 be substituted for the requested data for an earlier period. It also appears that the contractor Wireless Generation was aware of the error.  An unanswered question is whether the Executive Office played a role in  the matter. Sen. Buono said she plans to seek authority to issue subpoenas on Monday, and she has an RTTT hearing scheduled for Thursday.

Sen. Weinberg’s request deals with reconciling whether there are extra funds  in an apparently overfunded line item paying for the prescription program for public employees that could be used to replace $7.5 million for women’s health. The Office of Legislative Services said there are, whereas, Treasurer Sidamon-Eristoff said that there are not, and he refused to testify before the legislature on the matter. The key unanswered question is whether OLS is indeed accurate, which would further bolster Sen. Weinberg’s efforts to override the governor’s veto. The override vote is scheduled for Monday as well a rally in Trenton to support the effort.

The Asbury Park Press’ request deals with documents on the firing of Schundler. The governor stated that Schundler had told him he had offered to provide improper revised information to the RTTT reviewers. Schundler said he had not done so and warned the governor verbally and in emails  not to make this claim. Nonetheless, the governor later said he was lied to by Schundler, and he fired Schundler. An unanwered question is whether the governor told the truth in this matter. This issue might also be explored during Thursday’s RTTT hearings.  

Christie’s Pension Overhaul Off to a Bad Start

Yes we have a huge problem. As a Star Ledger editorial pointed out , “The settlement with the Security and Exchange Commission makes it official: For years, New Jersey had been cooking its books and neglecting to tell investors it was grossly underfunding pension plans. The state has been using one accounting method. Corporations use another, and academics embrace a third – and the latter two would place New Jersey in a much deeper hole, closer to $60 billion.” And this hole does not include a similar one: the State Employee Health Care Benefits System.

However, it appears that Governor Christie’s overhaul plan suffers from the same lack of transparency we have witnessed in the past.

(read about it below the fold)

Miss OPRA Regrets She’s Unable To Respond Today

September 14, 2010

Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms: [whomever]    

Regarding your request for information, I regret to inform you that because members of my staff have been on vacation, I remain unable to provide it to you at this time. To  date, we have not identified any records responsive to your request that would not be subject to the executive privilege, the attorney-client privilege or other recognized privileges. I request an extension of ten days.  Sincerely, Miss OPRA

bcc: reminder file for September 24: Request another ten-day extension

[Form Letter C-387 rev.02/03/10]

The Open Public Records Act (OPRA) calls for a response within seven days.

After an original deadline of September 7, yesterday was the extension deadline for Sen. Weinberg’s OPRA request for background documents to substantiate the governor’s difference of opinion with the Office of Legislative Services over funding for Family Planning. In a comment in her Monday Blue Jersey diary she says she was told “that they couldn’t meet the deadline (no kidding)… I did allow another 24 hour extension and made it clear that I would expect the documents in my Senate office by the end of business on Tuesday, September 14.” These documents are an essential part of the effort on September 20 to override Gov. Christie’s veto on women’s health care.

On August 26 Senator Buono filed a request for all documents related to New Jersey’s 2010 application to the Race to the Top funding. She granted one request for an extension and denied a second request made just two days after granting the first one. No documents are yet forthcoming.

The Asbury Park Press on Aug. 27 filed a request under OPRA to both the governor’s office and the state Department of Education for copies of all correspondence regarding the firing of former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler. In a recent response no date was given for completion of that review.

A free and open government must be responsive to requests for information in a timely manner and as stipulated by law. At least the governor just signed a bill creating a standard fee for OPRA request documents. However, that apparently does not stop Miss OPRA from sending her regrets.

Budget Revisited: Here a Cut, There a Gash

           “Governor Christie had a budget,

          And in his budget he had tools.

          With a “cut-cut” here and a “gash-gash” there,

          Here a “cut,” there a “gash,”

          Everywhere a “cut-gash,”

          Governor Christie slashed the budget.”
 

And the legislature acquiesced. Today seven New Jersey Assembly panels hold hearings on the recently enacted budget. They plan to review how the major spending cuts have impacted the state, including for example Family Care and police layoffs. For audio go here.  Not at all a cheerful matter as the Old McDonald tune might suggest, these cuts are painful for all of us and particularly painful for those who can afford them least. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said, “We plan to monitor closely to see what might be done to ease the pain.”

Which budget cuts have you the most concerned?

LIST FOR OUR READERS UP TO 3 PROGRAMS WHICH HAVE BEEN DEFUNDED OR CUT THAT WILL HAVE A SIGNIFICANT IMPACT FOR YOU PERSONALLY OR FOR NEW JERSEYANS IN GENERAL

Example: libraries, schools, and home rebate.

Your turn now:

Our Republican Supreme Court in 2012

The NJ Supreme Court’s 2010-11 term opens tomorrow. With Chief Justice Rabner’s assignment of Edward Stern (D) to Associate Justice, there are now 4 Democrats, 2 Republicans and 1 Independent on the court. This make up could change substantially in 2012. Justice Stern is temporarily filling the position of John Wallace (D) whom Governor Christie did not resubmit for tenure, as customary, when his initial 7-year term expired earlier this year. Instead Christie selected Anne M. Patterson (R) as a replacement, and Senate President Sweeney declared the nomination dead on arrival.

Beyond the unknowns of death, resignation, impeachment, or some form of political intervention, such as the Senate changing its mind and deciding to confirm Patterson, below are key dates which signal change in personnel and/or political affiliations of the court’s membership.

Sep 2011 – Roberto Rivera-Soto (R), initial 7-year term expires.

Mar 2012 – John Wallace (D), mandatory retirement age, with seat temporarily assigned to Edward Stern (D).

Mar 2012 – Virginia Long (D), mandatory retirement date.

Jul 2013 – Helen Hoens (R), initial 7-year term expires.

Jun 2014 (after expiration of Christie’s current term) – Chief Justice Rabner (D), initial 7-year term as Chief Justice expires.  

(more below the fold)

RTTT Transparency Lite

For a governor who says he values transparency, Christie has contradicted himself throughout the entire RTTT fiasco. He began by making embarrassing and incorrect accusations at at a press conference.  He refused to let Executive Office personnel testify, he then stopped commenting on the matter, and he tried to distract attention by launching a flurry of new initiatives.  

In addition, Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-18) is being stonewalled in her request for documents and emails. She submitted her initial  request on August 26 to then Commissioner Schundler under the Open Public Records Act for “all documents…related to, discussing or describing New Jersey’s 2010 application to the The Race to the Top funding.”  The state’s deadline for responding under law was September 7.  On September 7 the Department of Education requested an extension for nine days which she granted. On September 10 she received yet another request for an additional four days. Fed up at this point, Sen Buono denied the second request.

The documents are now due by September 16. The information is intended to be part of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee’s September 23 hearing into the cause of the flubbed response to a question that played a role in NJ not receiving the $400 million award. If the documents point toward involvement on the part of the Executive Office, she has full justification to subpoena the individuals. Governor Christie’s refusal to let them testify was based on his assertion that they had nothing to do with preparing the grant. DOE officials in the Assembly hearing said they had no contact with the Executive Office during the grant preparation, but that Schundler was in touch with the governor’s staffers.  Let’s get beyond Transparency Lite and open up to the public the complete picture of what transpired.    

Good luck Sen. Whelan

At the Meadowlands today Sen. Jim Whelan (D- Atlantic County) said, “If we do this right we will find a way to save and strengthen the horse racing industry, find a way to save and strengthen the casino industry, and at the same time find a way to get Xanadu finished.” Good luck, Sen. Whelan. Casinos, horse racing, and Xanadu are in deep financial trouble, beyond just fixes which the legislature or the governor can implement. The solutions being discussed are primarily about gaming – an independent agency to revive the AC casino business, slots/VLT’s for horse racing, and a possible casino attached to Xanadu.

The second Democratic Gaming Summit was held today at the Meadowlands Racetrack with about 1,000 in attendance – union members, race track enthusiasts, “suits” representing moneyed interests, and legislators trying their best to appear impartial while just as frequently representing the interests of their local constituents and business supporters.

A rising tide raises all boats, and certainly a better economy is what we need. However, the competition in the gaming industry will only get fiercer and continue to cannibalize itself. Internet gambling as it expands, which it will regardless of what the federal government wants, will only make physical location gambling more problematic. Gaming might produce short term gratification but longer term broader-based solutions are needed.

A better solution in Atlantic City where failing casinos are in death-like competition with surrounding states and some are worth only a fraction of their value four years ago, might be to return to its roots as an ocean-front family-friendly vacation resort which now happens to allow gambling. The Meadowlands race track at a minimum will have to tighten its belt but might have lessons to learn from the success this year at Monmouth. As Xanadu is located in a county with an excess of shopping malls, its new developer (when/if selected) might benefit by looking more at the entertainment, rather than retail, aspect of its proposed business model.

 

RTTT Hearings: See no evil… Hear no evil… Speak no evil

With former Commissioner Schundler deciding not to attend, the governor not providing his staff to testify, and contractor Wireless absenting itself, legislators were left with Department of Education officials and one consultant on loan from Newark to question.  The state officials said:

(1) They had not noticed the Sec. F change in financial data that resulted in the loss of 4.8 points.

(2) They could not verify that the handwritten notes that led to the change were indeed those of Schundler, although Schundler last night confirmed the handwriting was his.

(3) They did not know what input the governor and his staff gave Schundler regarding policy matters and particularly the decision to revoke the Schundler-NJEA agreement and the subsequent decision to rewrite parts of the grant over Memorial weekend.

(4) They did not overhear Schundler provide the correct information to the reviewers as Christie claimed and Schundler disputed, although Newark Consultant Dan Gohl overheard Schundler tell the lead reviewer, “We can get you anything you need.”

It is apparent that Wireless entered the notes into the proposal, generating an incorrect response, about March 28 and sent an email mentioning the change to recently appointed Acting Deputy Commissioner Smarick who was more involved with other parts of the section and did not take note of the change. It remains unclear who provided the final editing although DOE officials thought Schundler may have done so.

Dan Gohl did notice the change a few days before the Washington meeting and told Wireless about it, but Wireless said it was too late to correct as the application had already been submitted. But……

(continue below the fold)

Puff The Malignant Dragon, Part II

This got posted over this AM as the hearing was getting ready to start – Rosi

Having failed to garner a Race to the Top award, with kids heading back to school now, and with all schools hurting financially, it appears that as of this weekend Governor (“Puff”) Christie has not seen fit to apply for the federal Education Jobs Fund which would provide NJ with $268 million to save some 3,900 teacher positions. The bill was passed into law on August 10, 2010. On August 13 the U. S. Department of Education announced the availability of the funds and placed on its website the short application form and instructions. By September 3 17 states plus one possession had submitted their application and been announced as recipients. The application’s statutory submission deadline is September 9, 2010, and the Education Department anticipates awarding funds within two weeks of submission of an approvable application.

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner said (D-Bergen County) said, “It’s beyond puzzling as to why Governor Christie has not applied for this money yet. The Education Jobs Fund is a lifeline for schools struggling to keep classroom sizes down and the quality of education up.”

Maybe the dragon is mad or does not care. We know what he thinks of students (drug mules), teachers (mule drivers), NJEA (unprintable), and government in general (downsize it).  However, even Republican President Bush increased funding for education with his “No Child Left Behind.” Although initially Christie’s spokesperson Drewniak said,“The Christie administration may not apply for the funds,” the governor himself later said he would. So why the delay?  The application form is very simple and the funds are available now as schools plan their budgets.  

If the Governor has not submitted an application by Thursday then he faces the possibility of the federal government being left to determine how NJ funds are to be distributed and further slowing the process and causing uncertainty at each school. The governor has said that there was about $100 million left in the RTTT funds, and he hoped the federal government might award NJ these monies as we were the runner up in the competition. What impression does it leave with the feds if he is slow or fails to to apply for the Education Jobs Fund? What impression does it leave with New Jerseyans? Might he have submitted the application, but just does not want to tell us?  What is this dragon smoking?  

Race To The Top Hearing Today

UPDATE: News of this morning, fired Education Commissioner Bret Schundler declines to testify.– – – Rosi

The Assembly Appropriations Committee on Tuesday will hold the first formal legislative inquiry into the critical mistake that cost the state $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds. The committee expects to question members of the Christie administration.

The hearing will take place today at 10 a.m. in committee room 11 on the fourth floor of the State House Annex, West State State St., Trenton.

There will be live streaming HERE.