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.

“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

               

A Prison Inmate Panel Proposal: Good, Bad or Ugly?

The Assembly Judiciary Committee’s decision to move forward a bill to create a Blue Ribbon Panel to study the state’s prison inmate population could be quite worthwhile. However, the panel has a vague and extremely broad mandate and all its members will be appointed by the governor.

Over the last ten years NJ has done a good job of reducing its prison population. From 2000-2008 the number of people incarcerated nation-wide in state prisons rose by 12 percent.  In New Jersey, however, there was a 19% reduction from 31,493 to 25,436, from 1999 to 2009.

An area for the potential panel’s review is to examine the outcomes following the series of laws enacted during the lame duck session earlier this year.  One new law provided judges with more discretion in setting prison terms for people caught dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. Also a package of three bills were enacted that provided more education in prisons, more documentation (including birth certificates and  medical information) be given to inmates upon release, and welfare and food stamps for inmates re-entering society.  Are these programs being fully implemented and are they achieving their desired benefits?

It will be interesting to watch what happens to this bill in the legislature and what unfolds if the Blue Ribbon Panel is created.  The panel could infuse further progressive reforms (good),  sink into oblivion (bad), or promote retrogressive policies (ugly).  

NJSAEA: Doing the Same Thing And Expecting a Different Outcome

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

Our government should start getting rid of the NJ Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSAEA) albatross.

Someone said, “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.” For years the NJSAEA has expanded its investments into the Meadowlands complex, Monmouth Park Racetrack, and the AC and Wildwoods Convention Centers. The result: NJSAEA currently holds $830 million in debt, faces a deficit this year of $38 million, and is requesting from the state $30 million to meet its shortfall. NJSAEA is now pleading for slots machines at its racetracks and hopes for gambling at Xanadu.

During Senate hearings the NJS&EA President Dennis Robinson said that its “debt load reflects poor choices by past governors and lawmakers.” Actually our current governor recently appointed his former colleague Ralph Marra as Senior Vice President for Legal and Governmental Affairs with a 25% salary increase to $190,000. Marra has been criticized on several counts for improperly having used the federal prosecutor’s office to further Christie’s campaign.

Indeed past governors and lawmakers have treated the authority as their toy box. Political interference has including a bloated staff of political appointees, free tickets and catered meals to favored politicians, poorly negotiated contracts with football, basketball, and hockey franchises, bad decisions regarding Xanadu, and insistence on perpetuating the money-losing race track business.

Robinson also says there is a long-term future for the agency.  Really? With accounting statements “in such disarray they could not be trusted,” their race tracks bleeding huge sums, their infusion of capital from Xanadu nearing an end, ongoing debt on the former Giants stadium and Izod Arena, the NJ Devils long gone to Newark, the NJ Nets soon to follow, and questions raised about  their contract with  concert promoter Live Nation – where is the long-term future we can believe in?

Sports economists “have shown time and time again that the rosy estimates of economic benefits put forward by sports boosters are at odds with actual economic data.” We like our professional sports and we want to keep them, but other states have their own teams and have not pandered as much to team owners nor allowed their government to so mismanage the business.

As with companies that have a failed business model, the government should begin to find other operators, sell off its assets, close down facilities where necessary, and disengage from the sports, exposition and entertainment business.  Other non-governmental operators could run these facilities and be more successful. If some were to lose money it would not be a drain on our state’s treasury. There are other far more pressing needs in NJ. It’s time to stop. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”  

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.

\