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.

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.

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E. O. #15: “On the Fly”

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

The New Jersey Governor, particularly through authority granted in the constitution, is probably America’s most powerful governor. All the more reason we should beware of granting the Executive Office even more power. In Governor Christie’s Executive Order #15, designed to curb excesses of State Boards, Commissions, authorities, and agencies, he decrees:  

“No State Authority shall hire, enter into or renew any contract with any lobbyist or legislative agent, unless expressly authorized in writing in advance by the Governor’s Office.” Apparently, lobbying per se is not wrong, but can only be conducted when the Governor-General likes it.

“No State Authority shall approve any travel by any employee or Authority Board member in excess of two-hundred and fifty dollars ($250.00) paid out of Authority funds unless approval is obtained from the Governor’s Office prior to such travel.” While excessive travel expenses have been frequently incurred, this decree represents an absurd level of micromanagement power inappropriate for the Executive Office. With $250 one can barely, if that, cover the expense of a roundtrip Metroliner ticket to DC. How much time and effort of his staffers will be needed to handle such requests?

“No State Authority shall include any financial incentive relating to termination or separation from employment in employment contracts with its employees, unless expressly authorized in writing by the Governor’s Office.” Once again, the Governor indicates he does not necessarily oppose employment separation agreements, just those that he does not like.

The Governor-General is to be commended for tackling the multiple problems with these authorities. However, micromanagement and implying that certain actions might be egregious but are still reserved for the governor smack of power-grabbing and insufficient forethought. He needs to involve the legislature where Senator Loretta Weinberg, for example,  has already displayed leadership and success on this issue.  Or are we witnessing another another example of  “We are doing this on the fly.”      

Pension Reform Concrete

Pew Research Center in a report issued this month, The Trillion Dollar Gap, points out that such is the gap at the end of Fiscal Year 2008 between the monies states have set aside to pay for employee’s retirement benefits and the price tag of those promises. Reducing the gap entails spending funds not available for health, education and important needs, and ongoing gaps could require higher taxes.

Forty states were classified as needing improvement, Here is what Pew says about New Jersey:“New Jersey’s management of its long-term pension liability is cause for serious concern and the state needs to improve how it handles its retiree health care and other benefit obligations. New Jersey had a $7.5 billion pension surplus in 2000, but years of failing to meet the actuarially required contribution led to an unfunded liability of $34 billion in 2008. This has left the state’s pension plans with 73 percent of the assets needed, below the 80 percent benchmark that the U.S. Government Accountability Office says is preferred by experts.”

“Meanwhile, New Jersey faces a $68.9 billion long-term liability for retiree health care and other benefits- one of the largest of any state-but has not set aside any assets to cover that obligation.”

In 2008 and in the Senate’s package of bills this week New Jersey has taken steps to reduce the gap.  On thursday the Assembly is expected to introduce its version of the bills.

Nonetheless, New Jersey’s position of having 73% of the assets needed is in contrast to the 84% average for all states. Hence the Senate will hold hold a public hearing Monday on a constitutional amendment bill that would bind the state to making its full payment to the pension fund.

The bill which voters would have to approve requires the state and political subdivisions “to pay each year the full amount of the contribution it is required to make to any defined benefit pension plan operated by the State for public employees.”  It further “requires  the contribution to include the normal contribution and the unfunded accrued liability contribution…” The amendment permits the State a seven year period to gradually phase in its it payments to meet the requirement.

More up-to-date financial data would help citizens to understand where we are now, but the problems are real and the solutions involve tough medicine. New Jersey has to get itself back into a position where it can meet pension obligations and have more funds for the wider needs of its citizens. The recession and some ill-advised pension fund investments did not help the Garden State. Fortunately, New Jersey, as opposed to a number of other states, in 2008 and in the current legislative session is addressing the problem. “It’s a long-term fix, it is not a quick fix,” said Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the majority leader. “Don’t underestimate what we’re doing here today.  This is the New Jersey Legislature, where things are maddeningly incremental.” Fortunately, even incremental changes can make a substantial difference over time.

The final outcome of pension reform this year, particularly the constitutional amendment, is not set in concrete, but without substantial changes NJ will be under even heavier concrete that will impede meeting other pressing needs.  

The struggle for ME continues

The atmosphere at last night’s Garden State Equality rally in Montclair was so much friendlier than the recent GSE foray into Secaucus where the mayor, councilmen and residents were often hostile. Here in Bnai Keshet Synagogue in the land of Senator Nia Gill and Assenblywoman Sheila Oliver it was more like preaching to the choir. Preachers included Assembly Speaker Oliver, Senator Teresa Ruiz of Newark, GSE President Steve Goldstein, and friends of GSE. The choir included  a group of some 200 marriage equality enthusiasts, including a large contingent of kids and some teenagers wise beyond their age.  

Speaker Oliver talked about the need for resilience on the part of GSE members saying it’s just a matter of time for this human rights, civil rights, equality issue. In terms of why the marriage equality bill did not pass the legislature, she spoke of how the matter became framed in the context of religion and how it can be difficult for politicians to vote their gut.  She spoke of other concerns she wants to address: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ENDA, and school bullying.  Perhaps alluding to looming battles, she said it is important for Democrats “to define ourselves and not allow others to define us.”

Senator Ruiz gave a moving, emotional speech of support drawing on personal experience with a relative. Celebrity stars of GSE commercials spoke passionately as did members of the audience.

After the speeches we took to the streets bearing candles and headed to the GSE office for the traditional pizza – a nice ending for a nice day.

The rallies continue tonight (Friday) in Asbury Park and Monday in Trenton where there are two more opportunities to remind the public that New Jersey’s separate, unequal and failed civil union law should should be repealed and a new law enacted that provides true marriage equality. It is important to keep this message in people’s minds and hearts as even the courts, which will have to respond to GSE’s planned litigation, have been known to listen to the public’s pulse.