Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Justice Rivera-Soto and the Rule of Law

As previously discussed on this blog, Governor Christie declined to re-nominate Supreme Court Justice John Wallace to a tenured position on the Supreme Court, a seat the 68 year old jurist would have held for 22 months. Christie did so because Wallace would not commit to overturning the State's school-funding rules as established in the Supreme Court case of Abbott v. Burke. Although many called this a shocking politicization of the judiciary by the Governor, no one argues that the Governor is not within his rights under the State Constitution, which provides that the Governor nominates all judges (with the advice and consent of the Senate) and that Supreme Court Justices serve for an initial 7 year term.

Senate Democrats, led by Senate President Steve Sweeney, have refused to give Governor Christie's nominee to replace Justice Wallace, Anne Patterson, a hearing. Sweeney has said he will hold up the nomination until the expiration of the 22 month period Justice Wallace could have served. To avoid allowing the Governor the option of naming a recess appointment, Sweeney is keeping the Senate in continuous session. While many have argued that Sweeney is unduly politicizing the judicial nomination process, no one has successfully argued that Sweeney is violating the Constitution.

After the Supreme Court deadlocked 3 to 3 on a case about the legalization of gay marriage, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appointed Chief Appellate Judge Edwin Stern to the Supreme Court. In so doing, Rabner relied on the following Constitutional power:

"The Supreme Court shall consist of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices. Five members of the court shall constitute a quorum. When necessary, the Chief Justice shall assign the Judge or Judges of the Superior Court, senior in service, as provided by rules of the Supreme Court, to serve temporarily in the Supreme Court."

Recently, Supreme Court Associate Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto announced that he will abstain from any decision in which Stern participates. Rivera-Soto argues that Rabner only has the right to appoint a replacement when the Supreme Court lacks a quorum, i.e., has fewer than 5 Justices. In other words, Rivera-Soto reads the Constitution as meaning that the Supreme Court shall consist of a Chief Justice and not less than four nor more than six Associate Justices, and the Chief Justice shall assign a replacement judge when necessary to make a quorum.

In truth, Rivera-Soto has raised a valid point of Constitutional construction. And if he had legal standing to place that question before the court, as someone who has been harmed by a misinterpretation of the Constitution, he would have legal redress available. He could bring a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment as to the meaning of the Constitutional language in question.

As a seasoned jurist, Rivera-Soto knows he has no legal grounds to challenge the Chief Justice's decision; hence, his resort to self-help. However, there is no Constitutional support for an Associate Justice's refusal to hear cases on any grounds, let alone the grounds that the Chief Justice is misinterpreting the law. On the latter issue, the Constitution is clear: "The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall be the administrative head of all the courts in the State."

So, what is to be done about Justice Rivera-Soto? He is in his initial 7 year term. Had he been given tenure he would hold his post in good behavior and thus be subject to impeachment; however, it is not clear that an Associate Justice in his initial 7 year term may be impeached, as the conflict between the Constitutional provision allowing for impeachment and the provision allowing for a 7 year term is not resolved within the body of the document. Were the Supreme Court to certify Rivera-Soto incapacitated, the Governor would be obligated to form a 3 person commission to consider whether or not Rivera-Soto should be retired; arguably, though, Rivera-Soto does not meet the legal definition of incapacitated.

Thus, it seems that little can be done to remove the Associate Justice. It is possible that Chief Justice Rabner may appoint a replacement Justice to render opinions during which Rivera-Soto has promised to abstain. In fact, that may be the only solution, if in fact it could be called a solution.

And so New Jersey finds itself in the midst of a Constitutional crisis. Who the ultimate winners and losers will be remains unclear, other than the taxpayers who have already lost.

But it seems that there is a silver lining for Associate Justice Rivera-Soto. A Wall Street Journal editorial praised the Justice for refusing to participate in a political impasse, giving credit to the Justice for standing up against a power grab. One could well imagine a future in politics for the Associate Justice who just said "no."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Will Barbour's Flub Be Christie's Gain?

In a previous post I posited that Chris Christie would not run for president in 2012 because Haley Barbour was running. As head of the Republican Governor's Association, Barbour spent $7 million on Christie's gubernatorial campaign, Barbour has proven to be a staunch Christie supporter, creating a 20 minute RGA infomercial on Christie's election. And since Christie is primarily a fundraiser, he will never bite any hand that feeds him; thus, he is not about to challenge Barbour for the Republican nomination.

But it seems Mr. Barbour has made some racially insensitive comments, saying (among other things) that he didn't remember segregation as being so bad. It may be that Barbour's best contribution to the 2012 campaign would be as fundraiser.

So, should Barbour concede that he is not ready for prime time, would he support a Christie run?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Quote Of Note: Tom Emmer Gets It Right

Minnesota is becoming my favorite state (next to New Jersey, that is).

In November, both houses of Minnesota's legislature went from Democratic majorities to Republican control. However, the governorship went from a Republican to a Democrat, by a narrow margin. I find that fascinating.

Regarding the gubernatorial election, yesterday Republican Tom Emmer conceded to Democrat Mark Dayton after a recount confirmed Dayton's razor-thin lead. In so doing, Emmer precluded the possibility that Minnesota's next governor would not be seated by January 3rd, leaving Republican Tim Pawlenty in the governor's chair until the election was resolved. Such an outcome would have echoed Minnesota's contested 2008 senatorial campaign, which caused an 8 month delay in seating Senator Al Franken.

The Wall Street Journal quotes Emmer as saying the following:

"Some have suggested that I should consider contesting the election, if any good faith basis exists, because Minnesota might then have a Republican governor and a Republican legislature until this contest is resolved. I disagree. We must address questions raised by recent elections in this state, but I do not believe a delay in seating the next governor will help unite us or move our state forward."

We should all applaud Mr. Dayton's decision to put the interests of Minnesota voters over his personal ambitions and partisan politics. In so doing, he proves himself to be someone who belongs in elected office and we should all look forward to his future electoral successes.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Education Reform 2.0: Will Chris Christie Make The Grade?

For some time now, it has been clear that New Jersey hearts Michelle Rhee. Rumor has it that Clifford Janey was axed to make room for Ms. Rhee to do for Newark schools what she did in D.C., a plan derailed when Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million provided Cory Booker got the credit. Chris Christie then offered Ms. Rhee Bret Schundler's old job as Education Commissioner, but by then Ms. Rhee had soured on the Garden State.

In the interim, D.C rejected Ms. Rhee's divisive approach to reform by deciding not to re-elect Adrian Fenty for mayor. Rhee resigned shortly after her sponsor, Fenty, was defeated, and has announced the formation of a national school advocacy group.

And in short order, D.C. has moved beyond the Rhee era. D.C. teachers elected a new union head who wants to overhaul Ms. Rhee's teacher evaluation system. Interim D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson is open to tinkering with the system. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, sees the leadership changes in D.C. as a chance for a fresh start and a collaborative (as opposed to a combative) approach. It is fair to say that D.C. is now on its second wave of education reform.

There does seem to be a trend away from pugilism in the education debate. Controversial New York City Chancellor Joe Klein has resigned to take a job with News Corp. When Mayor Bloomberg sought to replace Klein with Cathleen Black, a candidate who had no education experience, he was stymied until he agreed to pair Black with an experienced education professional as a deputy. Thus, New York City has also chosen a more collaborative approach to education reform.

With Rhee and Klein out of their chancellor positions, that leaves only Chris Christie as a national figure demonizing teachers unions. Playing the bully has been so successful for Christie that it seems hard to imagine that he will want to join the second wave. And it also seems hard to imagine Barbara Keshisian making peace with the Governor any time soon.

So only time will tell if New Jersey will catch the second wave of education reform and move beyond its Rhee rah-rah-ism, or if New Jersey's education reform efforts will stay stuck in a partisan quagmire.

Quote Of Note: A Christie-Style Expansion Of State Power

It seems Republicans in North Jersey are peeved with the Governor's proposed cap on school superintendent pay. Rich towns want to be able to hire good superintendents to protect the quality of their schools and the value of their homes.

It seems these Republicans believe that schools should be run by local municipalities, and not by the State. Which is consistent with the Republican ideal of smaller government.

With respect to the pay cap, the Wall Street Journal quotes Brigid Harrison, political science professor at Montclair State University, as saying that "[i]t's a Chris Christie-style means to an end -- expanding state power to cut local government costs -- that could be hard for traditional conservatives to defend. This flies in the face of some of the ideological considerations that really have informed many of these decisions."

Quote Of Note: Bill Pascrell on the Tax Bill Compromise

President Obama has agreed to a temporary extension of the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans, even those making over $250,000 a year. Liberals are outraged at Obama's caving in to the Republicans.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, in describing the President's decision as a mistake, Bill Pascrell (D.NJ) said: "If this is the playbook for the next two years, we want out because Democrats in the House are irrelevant."

Quote Of Note: Pastor Tom Brown of El Paso

El Paso voters have approved a ballot measure preventing the city from providing health benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees. In addition, due to the vagueness of the wording of the measure, El Paso is now forbidden to provide health benefits to retired policemen and firemen.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the measure asks El Paso residents to embrace "traditional family values" by limiting benefits to "city employees and their legal spouses and dependent children."

The ballot measure was promoted in large part by a conservative pastor named Tom Brown of the Word of Life Church. Brown has promised to oppose any attempt to amend the ballot measure to allow for same-sex benefits.

Says Brown: "I'm feeling a call from God to get more involved in our government."

This has nothing to do with New Jersey, I just loved the quote.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wait Just A Minnesota Minute

In the Minnesota gubernatorial election, it seems that an almost-concluded recount will confirm that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Mark Dayton has beaten Republican Tom Emmer. By a very, very narrow margin, mind you, but still, by enough.

Why does this matter to New Jersey? Because this race decided who was to succeed Tim Pawlenty as Governor. Like Chris Christie, Pawlenty is a conservative Republican who governed a blue state. Pawlenty and Christie have pursued similar agendas -- alleging to have balanced budgets without raising taxes and catering to social conservatives. So, if history is unkind to Pawlenty's legacy in Minnesota, it may give Christie pause in pursuing the same policies as Pawlenty. Or at the very least provide Christie's detractors with some grist for their mills.

And Pawlenty leaves some pretty big issues on the table. For example, although Pawlenty claims to have balanced Minnesota's budget and to actually have a $399 million surplus, he did so in part by deferring some payments to the next 2 year budget cycle, such as K-12 education expenses. So not only does Minnesota's structural deficit remain, but overdue bills from the Pawlenty administration are driving the deficit for the next budget cycle to $6.2 billion. Which echoes Governor Christie's refusal to put aside money for public employee pensions and the State's structural Transportation Trust Fund deficit.

Interestingly enough, Dayton confirmed that, if elected, he would raise taxes on Minnesotans. Kind of like that other famous Minnesotan, Walter Mondale. But apparently, Minnesotans like hearing the truth (it was the only state to go for Mondale in his 1984 presidential campaign against Reagan). So if Pawlenty leaves office and the new Minnesota Governor starts saying that Pawlenty's policies were so much smoke and mirrors, leaving Minnesota in a worse state than before, so that tax increases are the only solution, it could be a message that resonates with moderates.

There may yet be some drama left for Minnesota as a result of this year's gubernatorial election. If Emmer challenges Dayton's win in court, Dayton may not be confirmed by January 3. In which case Pawlenty says he will stay on.

Minnesota has until January 15 to decide whether or not to accept $1.4 billion in Medicaid funds tied to the new federal health care law. If Pawlenty is governor on January 15, he will decline the money -- even though this was a big issue in the campaign and the candidate who said he would accept the money, Dayton, won. The reason Pawlenty won't accept the money is because he personally does not believe in big government and thus must decline the money -- which translates into a statement that accepting ObamaCare money will anger the tea party activists Pawlenty needs to survive the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.

So stay focused on Minnesota is you want some help reading New Jersey's political tea leaves.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Finally, Democrats Say It Out Loud: It's About Jobs, Stupid.

I heard Senators Reid and Kerry both say, on Meet The Press, that tax cuts for the rich have not created any jobs over the past ten years, and thus it is foolish to continue to lower taxes on the rich for the purpose of creating jobs.

Says Senator Kerry, we cannot "cut" our way to competitiveness, we need to invest in our future.

Here in New Jersey, Steve Sweeney and Sheila Oliver are promoting a "Back To Work NJ" legislation program of about 30 bills. These bills include reforming business tax codes to base corporate business taxes on a company's sales in New Jersey (called "single sales factor"), eliminating a company's share of employees and physical assets in New Jersey as factors in determining a tax bill; a job training program for the unemployed which allows for up to 24 hours a week of workplace training from a potential employer for up to six weeks; and giving senior citizens whose total earnings fall under $100,000 an exemption from state income taxes on any income from a pension or deferred compensation plan.

Finally, a major political party recognizes that there is more to this debate than discussing how much to tax and how much to spend. Like the recent debt commission report, there is the understanding that strategic tax changes, strategic spending and fresh ideas are what we need. Please, can we stop having the same discussions we've been having since Reagan's first term.

I can only hope that this is the beginning of some adult conversations in the run-up to 2012.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Biting The Hand That Feeds

Hoboken has decided to join Parsippany in bringing suit to challenge the Governor's alleged right to limit superintendent pay.

At issue is local rule. Municipalities have control over their schools, not the State. And the legal challenges assert that the State lacks the authority to limit superintendent pay.

As a matter of political reality, the Governor seems to have peed in his own backyard. Rich Republican towns know that high school quality maintains property values, and these towns do not like being told that they cannot decide to hire top-notch talent for their school systems. And so it would seem that the Governor's supporters are none too pleased with this particular policy.

Since Chris Christie is first and foremost a fundraiser, it is truly unusual for him to be at odds with his financial backers.

The 2012 Election Begins

The Republican Presidential primary has begun. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney are at the head of the pack. Republican Governors Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty are also frequently mentioned.

And then there's Haley Barbour. In truth, Barbour's candidacy is at least one major factor influencing Chris Christie's decision not to run. As head of the Republican Governors Association, Haley Barbour funneled about $7 million into Christie's gubernatorial campaign. Since Christie has a policy of rewarding those who help him, he raised over $8 million for the RGA and will not run against Barbour.

As Republican governors, Haley and Christie have a lot in common. Both have been lobbyists and fundraisers. Under cover of the economic downturn both slashed state spending while remaining popular with voters. Both men criticize the Federal government's excessive spending while accepting Federal stimulus dollars.

And as candidates, both men promised not to raise taxes. Barbour, however, broke that pledge. He reinstated a hospital tax used to fund Medicaid and increased cigarette taxes.

So it would seem that the reception Barbour gets on the campaign trail will inform Chris Christie's decisions as governor. If Barbour is pilloried by conservatives in the primary race for raising taxes, then certainly Christie will stand firm on his pledge. But if Barbour gets a pass on his tax increases, it creates a window of opportunity here in New Jersey.

Let the games begin.

Monday, November 15, 2010

So Much For Smaller Government

New Jersey's Casino Control Commission is an independent agency which is in, but not of, the Department of Treasury. The CCC is responsible for administering the Casino Control Act and its regulations, and for supporting the tourist and convention capabilities of Atlantic City. The 5 members of the independent CCC are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate, and no more than 3 members may be from any given political party. The CCC shares its regulatory authority with the Division of Gaming Enforcement, which is a division within the office of the Attorney General.

The Christie administration has prepared draft legislation which would limit the role of the CCC to casino licensing, and consolidate all other CCC functions within the Division of Gaming Enforcement. Thus, in large part, the CCC would join the Inspector General and the Medicaid Inspector General as independent agencies which have been brought under the control of the executive branch. Governor Christie has also proposed bringing all county prosecutors under the jurisdiction of the Attorney General and eliminating the sole remaining independent investigative agency, the State Commission of Investigations.

At what point do people start to notice that the man who campaigned for smaller government is intent on expanding the executive branch at every turn?

Monday, November 8, 2010

State Commission of Investigation in the Cross-Hairs Again.

Ted Sherman of the Star Ledger reports that "some" are suggesting that the State Commission of Investigation has outlived its time. Yes, the SCI was central in investigating organized crime, especially in Atlantic City. But that was 40 years ago, which has lead "some" (including Dem. Sen. Richard Codey) to question whether or not the SCI model is outmoded.

The reasons? The number of annual SCI reports has dropped precipitously -- from 3 to 2. This year it put out only 1. And that 1 wasn't about organized crime, it was about the State's governing body for high school athletics. And 20 staffers at SCI make more than $100,000 a year. And the Inspector General, Medicaid Inspector General and State Comptroller also investigate corruption.

Of course, the SCI is the sole investigative body in the State not under the control of the Governor. Which is why Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono says the SCI is an absolutely necessary independent check on the executive branch. As Governor Christie plans to take control of the Atlantic City casino district, the elimination of the SCI would be ironic at best.

However, the true agenda has nothing to do with whether or not the SCI is outmoded, or duplicative. Since he was a U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie has shown a willingness to politicize the investigative powers of government. While other U.S. Attorneys serving under Alberto Gonzalez were fired for their refusal to bring political prosecutions against Democrats, Christie launched a major sting operating against Democrats in New Jersey and leaked an indictment involving Senator Roberto Menendez during the 2006 campaign.

Christie intends to draw all of the State's investigative power under his control, and then use that power to further his agenda. Attorney General Paula Dow has already said that political prosecutions are a priority for this administration, even though such cases are usually handled by the U.S Attorney's office. Already, the Christie administration has launched voter fraud investigations in Atlantic City and Essex County.

So, who are these "some" with questions? Other than Senator Codey, the only person cited by the article is Michael Herbert, the attorney for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association -- i.e., the subject of the SCI's 1 report this year. And, BTW, that report was a doozy, highlighting the NJSIAA's profligate spending and perks.

Which strongly suggests that some of those "some" are speaking without attribution, laying the groundwork for the Governor's 2011 budget axe.

Truly, the only surprising part of this whole story is that the Christie Administration would even try to sway public opinion against the SCI before lowering the boom.

Friday, November 5, 2010

That's So Rude It's Unconstitutional

The Commissioner of Education traditionally addresses the NJEA convention every year. But not this year. Acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks declined to take the opportunity to address tens of thousands of teachers on the grounds that the union has shows itself unwilling to work with Governor Christie to effect reform. Hendricks says her door is open if the union wants to discuss rewarding good teachers and replacing bad teachers.

On its face, this is just silly. Somehow, an invitation to talk is evidence of a refusal to work together. Truth be told, Governor Christie wants the NJEA as a political foil and not a partner in reform; Hendricks is merely following the Governor's lead.

Says union head Barbara Keshishian: "Acting Commissioner Hendricks’ refusal to engage in a discussion with professional educators in a professional development setting is astounding. The tone of Hendrick's e-mail is consistent with prior statements from the Christie administration: filled with political rhetoric and inaccurate characterizations of NJEA."

Not only is it astounding, it may be unconsititional. The New Jersey Constitution provides, in relevant part, that "[p]ersons in public employment shall have the right to organize, present to and make known to the State, or any of its political subdivisions or agencies, their grievances and proposals through representatives of their own choosing."

In other words, the Governor and his administration have a Constitutional duty to work with the NJEA.

Truly, this is just another example of the Christie administration's willingness to ignore the law when it suits the Governor. Like the Governor's refusal to fund the public employee pension fund, even though he is legally obligated to do so. or the Governor's failure to balance the State budget (despite his claims to the contrary.)

Apparently, respect for the rule of law is no longer a conservative value.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Team Christie Long On Public Corruption Experience

Mark Lagerkvist of New Jersey Watchdog thinks he has uncovered a scandal pertaining to Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno.

In September, 2008, when she was Monmouth County Sheriff, Guadagno hired Michael W. Donovan, Jr. to replace John Cerrato as Sheriff's Chief, a job which paid $87,500 a year. However, Donovan was already receiving more than $85,000 in retirement benefits from the State, and he would be required to give up that pension to become Chief.

So, Guadagno officially hired Donovan as Chief Warrant Officer. While the Sheriff's Chief oversees the day-to-day operations of the 145 officers and civilians in the Law Enforcement Division, the Chief Warrant Officer is a civilian position responsible for community relations. Donovan would be able to serve in a civilian capacity without giving up his State pension.

In fact, the Chief Warrant Officer position is so non-essential that, two weeks before hiring Donovan, Guadagno said she was eliminating the position. And this is the scandal New Jersey Watchdog is breaking.

What Lagerkvist failed to take into account is that, prior to becoming Monmouth County Sherriff, Kim Guadagno was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of New Jersey. In fact, she was responsible for corruption prosecutions. So it's safe to say that Guadagno knows how to tapdance her way through legally getting the State to pay a pension to someone working for the State full-time.

Lagerkvist has, however, hit on a pattern. Not an illegal pattern, mind you, not a RICO violation, but something significant. He found Guadagno using her knowledge of political corruption law and her power as Sheriff for her own benefit. In other words, Lagerkvist found out why Guadagno is perfectly qualified to serve in the Christie administration.

For example, in addition to Guadagno, Attorney General Paula Dow was a former A.U.A. before becoming Essex County Prosecutor. In fact, from 2002-2003, Paula Dow served as counsel to District Attorney Chris Christie.

In a recent interview on New Jersey Capital Report, Dow stated that her top priorities as Attorney General will be violent crime and public corruption Says Dow, "Public corruption has got to play a key role."

Dow acknowledged that the Christie administration would be focusing on public corruption more than previous administrations. Previous administrations left public corruption investigations to the U.S. Attorney, because of the potential conflict of interest inherent when one political appointee uses the power of the State to investigate other politicians.

But, reasons Dow, since the old U.S. Attorney is now the Governor "[W]e have a big role to play" in political corruption investigations.

Dow claims the Governor played a role in the 2008 indictment of Joe Vas. Vas was a Democratic boss in Perth Amboy and Middlesex County running for re-election as Mayor of Perth Amboy. His 2008 defeat was shocking, and ultimately he was convicted.

Dow also claims that the Attorney General's office is investigating election fraud in Atlantic City (a Democratic stronghold) and Essex County (another Democratic stronghold).

So, what Lagerkvist has stumbled onto is the Governor's intention to use the investigative power of this office willing to use their political power and their expertise in political corruption to attack Democrats.

Chris Christie Gives Back

Chris Christie has been travelling the country supporting Republican gubernatorial candidates on his own personal "I'm not running no matter what it looks like" tour.

Here's how the Wall Street Journal describes it. The Republican Governor's Association spent $7 million to get Chris Christie elected. And now Chris Christie's advisors are letting it be known that Chris Christie has raised about $7 million for Republican governor races across the country.

And this is an essential part of the Chris Christie brand. Chris Christie rewards those who help him.

For example, many cited Christie’s appointment as a Federal prosecutor by President Bush as little more than political payback. However, Herbert Stern supported Christie’s appointment. Stern had previously held the job of U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, before becoming a respected jurist and ultimately returning to private practice.

For his support, Herbert Stern’s law firm was later awarded a no-bid monitor contract by U.S. Attorney Christie, which paid $500 an hour and ultimately netted the firm over $8 million. Also, when Sam Stern, Herbert’s son, applied for a position as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of New Jersey and was turned down, Christie personally intervened and Stern the younger was ultimately hired. Such intervention in personnel matters is against the regulations governing the hiring of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

And John Ashcroft, the Attorney General when Chris Christie was appointed U.S. Attorney, was also rewarded. When Ashcroft returned to private practice, Christie appointed John Ashcroft’s firm to a Federal monitor position which paid more than $52 million over 18 months, one of the highest payouts ever to a Federal monitor.

Now, the good people at Reform Jersey Now are spending a lot of money to push forward the Christie agenda. One wonders how the good Governor will pay them back.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Tea Party War On Publicly Funded Media

Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, has introduced legislation which would end taxpayer funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which operates National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. The alleged impetus for this is NPR's firing of Juan Williams for his comments on The O'Reilly Factor. In so doing, DeMint joins a veritable "Who's Who" of tea party stars.

This strikes an odd parallel with Governor Christie's plan to de-fund New Jersey Network, New Jersey's public broadcaster. New Jersey Network is a public broadcast network owned by the State of New Jersey. It was originally formed because New Jersey, sandwiched between the media markets of Philadelphia and New York City, did not have any local network with Jersey-centric programming.

Christie's alleged motivations are budgetary and operational. However, it was NJN News that disclosed then U.S. Attorney Christie’s secret loan to Assiatant U.S. Attorney Michele Brown during the 2009 gubernatorial election. The fate of NJN remains to be seen.

Since I don't believe in coincidences, I have to believe that the tea party wants to escalate the Republican war on the "liberal" media be eliminating publicly funded broadcasting. Maybe they don't want anyone in the media smart enough to ask Sarah Palin embarrassing questions. Because she really CAN see Russia from her house.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MIchelle Rhee Will Not Be Newark's Next Superintendent

OK, I admit it, I was wrong. Michelle Rhee will not be coming to Newark as the new superintendent. She may, however, become the State's new Education Commissioner -- but probably not.

The unofficial "official" story is that Rhee does not want to come to New Jersey for family reasons -- her husband, Kevin Johnson, is the mayor of Sacramento, CA. Something else is in play here, clearly, as it is nonsensical to assert that D.C. was not too far from Sacramento but Newark and Trenton are. My gut tells me that Ms. Rhee wants to be the only superstar in town, and that sharing the stage with Chris Christie and Cory Booker is not optimal in her view.

So now we wait to see who Booker and Christie tap for the highest profile superintendent gig in the nation, and who Christie gets to sit on the Commissioner hotseat formerly belonging to Bret Schundler.

UPDATE -- The Wall Street Journal reports that Ms. Rhee is engaged to the mayor of Sacramento, not married -- so my dismissal of the "family time" discussion above doesn't actually hold water. The Journal also reports that Governor Christie says he never offered Ms. Rhee a job, despite reports to the contrary in the national press.

At this point, this whole story reminds me of 6 year olds playing soccer. You know there has to be a ball in there somewhere, because everyone's kicking at something, but clearly no one has a grasp on the game.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Wall Street Journal Says Liberals Killed The ARC Tunnel

According to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, "Chris Christie sure has a knack" for shocking the political class on behalf of taxpayers. Christie struck a blow for taxpayers by cancelling the ARC Tunnel because of cost overruns. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was "stunned."

States the Journal:

"The [ARC] tunnel flap is a microcosm of the crowding out of public works caused by liberal governance around the country. In New York State, bridges like the Tappan Zee over the Hudson River are in desperate need of repair . . . The 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles needs repair and earthquake retrofitting, but Sacramento is busted."

First of all, New York had a Republican governor from 1995 to 2007, and the mayor of New York City before independent Mike Bloomberg was Rudy Giuliani. And California has had Republican governors since 1991. So how can this be a liberal phenomenon?

It's the public employee unions, of course. The public employee unions have a stranglehold on state government, and are sucking the transportation infrastructure repair money out of the states in the form of pensions and health benefits and wage increases. See, it's public employee unions against taxpayers again -- that's the underlying meaning.

Second of all, the taxpayers whose property values will rise as a result of the ARC Tunnel are not being well served by the Governor. The taxpayers who pay for road maintenance are not being well served by the Governor, who is doing nothing to get cars off of the road. The taxpayers who breathe the air are not being served, either.

Third of all, Chris Christe cancelled the ARC tunnel to pull the press out of the room where Bret Schundler was throwing the Governor under the bus. Basically, Christie panicked and killed a deal with the NJEA that he knew about because he did not like the press he was getting. Then, when he was about the get more bad press about his previous panic, Christie panicked again and prematurely pulled the plug on the ARC Tunnel. And somehow that's a model of good choices in government.

It seems Chris Christie can't pass gas without the Wall Street Journal finding the Governor refreshing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Michelle Rhee Officially Looking For A Job

As anticipated, Michelle Rhee has resigned as D.C. Chancellor of Schools. Rhee backed incumbent mayoral candidate Adrian Fenty in a Democratic primary largely seen as a referendum on Rhee's educational reforms. Fenty lost to Vincent Gray, who intends to pursue more incremental reforms than those adopted by Ms. Rhee -- e.g., no more mass teacher firings, no more mass school closures.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page cited Ms. Rhee's departure as an "Education Reform Setback," and noted the fact "[t]hat one of the nation's most talented school reformers was forced out does not bode well for students, or speak well of the man likely to become D.C.'s next mayor."

But I say, "Fear not, WSJ." Michelle Rhee is the most famous education reformer in all the land, and after Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million dollar gift to the Newark School System -- announced on the Obama-friendly Oprah Winfrey Show, no less -- Newark is the most famous school district in the world in need of reform. Surely, destiny will not keep these two apart, especially since Chris Christie and Cory Booker are ardent fans of Ms. Rhee's.

In the movie version, I want Meg Ryan to play Ms. Rhee and Tom Hanks to play Newark. And they can meet at the end of the movie on top of the Prudential Center.

The Midtown Direct Effect

The Wall Street Journal reports that certain New Jersey communities have seen housing prices recover faster than in other communities. Houses in good condition in bedroom communities with good public schools and short commutes to Manhattan are seeing housing prices rebound. Apparently, the Wall Street recovery is fueling the housing market boomlet.

Jeffrey Otteau of Otteau Valuation Group, a New Jersey appraisal firm, says that New Jersey towns with short, direct train rides to Manhattan outperformed the rest of the State during the first half of 2010. Says Otteau, "We have seen the effects of the Manhattan rebound in the market we describe as Midtown Direct," a corridor with direct commutes to Manhattan of 35 minutes or less.

I hope someone flags this information to the Christie advisors reviewing the ARC Tunnel. That project would create a new Midtown Direct corridor and increase property values -- it would create wealth.

I also hope someone flags this information to the Governor himself the next tome he discusses pulling money out of suburban school districts to send to private, parochial and charter schools. Good public school districts add to home value -- they create wealth.

I had a lot of time to ponder this information last night during my 2.5 hour commute (normally 35 minutes. Aging Amtrak infrastructure cannot handle the volume of traffic our economy requires. Doing nothing is not an option -- either we act affirmatively to improve the infrasrtucture or we react when that infrasrtucture crumbles beneath our feet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Where's PETA When You Need Them?

I know this is picky, but why is the Governor belittling pet sterilization?

The Governor has been saying that the legislature has been wasting its time on bills such as a pet sterilization bill rather than working on the Governor's tool kit. Speaking as someone who has taken in shelter animals and strays, there is nothing frivolous about the humane treatment of animals. And, quite frankly, I don't trust people who aren't kind to animals.

Man, this Governor has a tin ear.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bret Schundler Gets To Say The Obvious

Although it came as no surprise, it is still worth noting Bret Schundler's confirmation that Chris Christie killed Schundler's deal with the NJEA, which would have brought $400 million to the State, merely because Christie did not want to make peace with the union.

And it's worth noting that the decision to provide annual cost information different from the requested information in the State's Race To The Top application was not an oversight, not a careless error, but instead a conscious decision based on a political calculation.

This information may seem lost in the noise of the ARC Tunnel collapse today, but in the future elections Chris Christie plans to run in, this information will speak loudly about how idealogues function. Future elections won't be run on the premise that there are 2 classes of people, public employees and the taxpayers who pay for them.

Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now?

Congratulations to Michael Aron, senior political correspondent at NJN. With the Governor's cancellation of the ARC Tunnel project, Mr. Aron is ready to conclude that Chris Christie is making decisions with national office in mind. According to Mr. Aron, Mr. Christie wants to run in 2016 as the Republican who cancelled the largest public works project in the nation on grounds of fiscal responsibility.

Why 2016? Because the Governor has gone out of his way to make it clear that he is not running in 2012. He may be able to explain away a Vice Presidential bid in 2012, but not a presidential bid.

But here's the thing. 2016 is a political lifetime away. Hell, 2006 was the year the Democrats swept into Washington, and 2010 is the year they get swept out (although I am not convinced that Democrats will lose the House -- I will be surprised if it happens).

In 2016, the economy will be back on track, people will be back to work. And the lack of adequate public transportation infrastructure will probably be seen as a bad thing. And the ARC tunnel will not be 2 years away from completion, if it ever gets started at all. My money says that in 2016 the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel will be seen as penny wise and pound foolish, an act of political cowardice and a failure to invest in New Jersey.

Such is the fate of idealogical demagogues. They are creatures of their times, and as they build track records of accomplishments they prove themselves of limited appeal.

For example, in 2004 the top issues were terrorism and the war in Iraq; swing voters were focused on "values." In 2008, candidate's support for the war in Iraq was a big litmus test. In 2004, you weren't a viable candidate unless you supported the war; in 2008 support for the war was a detriment.

Maybe this all speaks to where Chris Christie expects New Jersey to be in 2016. Apparently, he's not planning on a robust economic recovery anytime soon; apparently, he's planning for 6 more years of recession.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Children Are New Jersey's Future Profit Centers

Last week the Governor announced his school reform agenda. He wants merit pay for teachers, and he wants student test scores to count for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation (as it is in Chancellor Rhee’s D.C. schools). And he wants changes in tenure, a statewide data system than tracks student achievement, a teacher evaluation task force, the ability to designate “master” teachers and alternate route certification for principals.

Merit pay and tenure reform require the legislature to act.

Money for merit pay increases would come from firing bad teachers. Says the Governor:
“Any type of compensation that allows for anything but merit – gone.”

Seniority and graduate degrees (outside of math and science) would not affect pay.

But it is the Governor’s own plan that should fail any test based on merit. It ignores every major study on the issues. For example, a study recently released by Vanderbilt University and the Economic Policy Institute shows that merit pay simply does not work. The studies showing the unreliability of the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations have been discussed on this blog previously. This is not fact-based policy, this is politics.

According to NYU professor Diane Ravitch, “One of the signature issues of business people and conservative Republicans for the past 30 years has been merit pay. They believe in competition, they believe that financial rewards can be used to incentivize better performance, so it seems natural for them to conclude that merit pay or performance pay would incentivize teachers to produce better results.” Kind of like telling your kid they get $10 for an A and $5 for a B on their report card.

The last piece of economic reform proposed by the Governor would be to allow private companies to operate charter schools. Christie also called for swift passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would provide corporate dollars as scholarships to low income students who want to attend private or parochial schools.

So, connecting the dots, here’s the Governor’s plan. First, the Governor delivers a budget that diverts more tax revenue away from suburbs and into urban school districts than ever before. Second, the Governor announces a voucher lottery where 24,000 of the kids in the districts that got all the money can apply towards private school tuition. In New Jersey, educational funds follow the student, not the school. So when a student leaves a public school and goes to a private school, the state money also leaves the public school and goes to a private school. So, in reality, the Governor is taking taxes from the suburbs and giving them to private schools.

Another piece of the Governor's plan is that corporations will provide the scholarships that allow students to use their lottery vouchers and attend private schools. In exchange, the corporations get a tax break. So now the Governor is taking corporate income taxes away from the State and giving them to private schools.

So, in the final analysis, this is classic Chris Christie. Use educational policy to reward those who support him – private business and those who favor parochial schools – and punish those who oppose him – teachers. And the inner city kids who don’t get scholarships and have to stay in even less functional schools? Collateral damage. Acceptable losses.

I guess we should be grateful that the Governor is unwilling to take these policies to their fullest potential. For example, the school voucher program could set the scholarships at 75% of the price of private school tuition, creating a market for a new student loan program.

So Junior wants to go to school? Here's his first lesson -- nothing is free. Here's his second lesson -- in order to be a productive citizen, Junior must carry debt. Yes, we must start teaching Junior that the American way of life requires borrowing to live beyond your means. America doesn't actually produce that much anymore, so the only truly reliable source of revenue for corporate American is interest income on debt. So how better to teach Junior to be patriotic than to start him accumulating debt and paying interest at the earliest possible age? Because only when the middle class is completely strapped by debt and has no choice but to work at whatever job they can get can government pursue its true purpose -- servicing corporations.

Let's say Junior doesn't have the money to start repaying his loans when they come due in the sixth grade. Well, then we create a "work-study" program. Junior will spend 10 hours a week working either for the private bank that provided his student loan or the corporation that provided his scholarship. Because we have to support the student's right to make choices with respect to his or her education.

Perhaps the company has to pay its janitors too much money because of a pesky union. No problem -- send in Junior and the rest of the sixth grade class from Our Sister of Perpetual Debt. Or, maybe one day you will be driving down the Garden State Parkway and see a sign that says "The next mile of this road is maintained by Generic Bank", and there will be Junior and the sixth grade class cleaning up the highway wearing bright orange vests that read "Another Proud Private School Student."

But even this does not go far enough. To truly squeeze the full potential out of this school voucher program, we have to think of New Jersey's children as not just our future but as our future profit centers.

We can start small, auctioning off advertising space on the lapels and ties of the new mandatory private school uniforms. Nothing garish. The kids will just look like they are playing at the Masters or at the U.S. Open.

But the real money comes from all of that glorious debt the kids are generating. The State could take all of that debt, lump it together, then carve it up into little pieces and sell it as asset-backed securities (the assets are the loans, not the actual students -- at least at first). And, of course, the State will then sell credit default swaps so that the people buying the student loan backed securities can insure themselves against student loan defaults. The State will then start a program where, if you move your company into the State, you get to pick all of the student loans that go into a given asset-backed security -- then the State will go out and sell that security while the relocating company and the State sell the security short. It's win-win!

Of course, there is an inevitable end-game. Ultimately, the churches become ever more reliant on State-sponsored vouchers and loans. Then, when the market for student-loan backed securities goes bust and companies stop providing scholarships, the churches will become insolvent. And at that point, the State will swoop in and acquire the churches in a pre-negotiated bankruptcy, achieving the ultimate Church-State which has been the dream of the religious right since the invention of birth control.

Lucky for us Chris Christie isn't this ambitious.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chris Christie, Culture Warrior

It's clear -- the Wall Street Journal hearts Chris Christie. Last week, a lead editorial crowed that "New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has become the national pacesetter in state fiscal reform. . ." The Governor got his picture in the Wall Street Journal two times in one day within the past two weeks, once in connection with a lawsuit in Minnesota that had nothing to do with New Jersey (I'm sure Tim Pawlenty was none too pleased).

The focus of this love-fest is the Governor's on-going war against public employee unions, the latest salvo of which was launched a few weeks ago. The Governor unveiled a plan to reform public employee pensions by rolling back a 9% increase negotiated in 2001, eliminate cost of living adjustments for both current and future retirees, raise public employee contributions to retirement plans, make it harder to get disability benefits and lower the expected return on pension benefits from 8.25% annually to 7.5%. State workers would pay 30% of health costs, up from about 8% now, and retirees would face higher co-pays.

All of this moves State public employee health and retirement benefits closer to a private industry model, which the Wall Street Journal says is the right way to go. In fact, the Journal thinks the Governor does not go far enough, and should replace government pensions with 401(k) plans.

In an earlier op-ed, Steve Malanga of The Manhattan Institute discussed Governor Christie’s successful election campaign and the role of the NJEA. By way of reminder, the Manhattan Institute is the right-leaning think tank that issued a study showing that New Jersey’s Millionaire’s Tax caused wealthy citizens to flee the State. According to Malanga, the NJEA polled its own membership and found its members supported John Corzine by only a slight majority. Malanga posits that Christie has positioned himself on the right sife of a national anti-union culture war that has Republicans and Democrats alike distancing themselves from public employee unions.

Writes Malanga:

"Still, what we are seeing this year may mark a historic shift in American politics. If candidates around the country can repeat Mr. Christie’s strategy of winning office by taking on public unions, we could be witnessing a change akin to what happened in the late 1970s, when tax revolts in a handful of states created a nationwide momentum that eventually reflected Ronald Reagan.

The early 21st century version of tax rebellion is a head-on collision between over-burdened taxpayers and public sector unions. The many signs of union weakness suggest that after decades of expanding power, government-worker unions have met their match."

And interestingly, an article on a Minnesota court case which ran the same day as Malanga's op-ed featured a photograph of Chris Christie. The article discussed a law suit questioning whether or not Minnesota can curtail pension benefits for current retirees from state jobs. The article cited a February report from the Pew Center on the States estimates that, in the aggregate, the states face a trillion dollar gap between the pension, health care and other retirement benefits owed to public employees and the money states have set aside to pay for them. But since New Jersey is one of those states considering cuts to pension benefits for retired government workers, the outcome of the Minnesota case may impact plans in New Jersey and other states, so of course the only picture would be of Chris Christie.

So it would seem that the Wall Street Journal, now a part the Rupert Murdoch/ Fox News/ right wing echo chamber, is selling us a culture war which pits overburdened taxpayers against teachers, judges, police officer, firefighters and the like. The middle class against the middle class. And the solution is to turn state pensions over to Wall Street.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Prediction: Michelle Rhee Coming To Newark

This week, the District of Columbia held a momentous Democratic mayoral primary. Incumbent Adrian Fenty lost the nomination to challenger D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray. As Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was vocal in her support of Fenty over Gray, scuttlebutt is that Ms. Rhee, widely seen as the national face of education reform, will soon be looking for a new job.

Governor Christie has publicly announced that he will be using Newark as a testing ground for his views on education reform, and that he will be replacing Clifford T. Janey as Newark Schools Superintendent. Ms. Rhee succeeded Mr. Janey as Chancellor in D.C., and my bet is that she will be succeeding him as Newark Superintendent as well.

My biggest question is whether or not Ms. Rhee will get a bigger salary than the Governor. Fortunately for both Ms. Rhee and Governor Christie, the Newark Superintendent position is exempt from the new $175,000 salary cap.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Ethics Of Chris Christie

The Governor has indicated that he will unveil 1 new reform initiative a week for the next 4 weeks. Initiative 1 -- ethics reform. As part of the Governor's plan, he would seek to stop people from collecting 2 public paychecks. So, for example, a teacher, fireman or policeman cannot collect a second public salary if that public employee is elected to public office.

Thus, we have an interesting opportunity to gain insight into what the Governor does and does not consider ethical. The Governor's probable concern is cronyism -- finding elected officials second jobs on the public dime so that they can afford to stay in office and vote as their patron would have them vote. For the record, the logic of extending that concern to public employees who win elections escapes me.

What I see is that this Governor is committed to using every power available to him to further his agenda. The Governor wants to weaken the control public employees have over state government. Since expanding a legitimate ethics concern to also limit the number of public officials running for office furthers that goal, the Governor sees no ethical conflict in doing so.

Simply put, the Governor believes that enlightened self-interest is the best route to the greater good. The world works best when everyone pursues their self-interest to the greatest extent possible, even to the detriment of others. Or, simply put, what's good for Chris Christie is good for the State.

And I believe that elected officials should put the public interest above self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. What's good for the State is good for Chris Christie.

So the Governor's efforts to minimize the ability of public employees to oppose him is perfectly ethical in his view. And to me it is unethical because it is in the interest of the State to have the most qualified people in office, even if those qualified people didn't vote for Chris Christie.

Friday, September 3, 2010

It's Official: Change Is Coming To Newark

Governor Christie officially let Newark Superintendant of Schools Clifford Janey know that Janey's 3 year contract will not be renewed when it expires next year. In a surprising show of generosity, the Governor is not claiming that this is a termination for cause. Yet.

The Newark school system is directly under the control of the Governor, giving the Governor a unique chance to implement reform. His intention is to make Newark a test case for his education policies and priorities, as part of his on-going effort to build his national profile. And the writing is on the wall, as the Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (and not the NJEA), has already gone on record as being open to merit pay and to changes in tenure and seniority.

The next step will be to name Janey's replacement. And here the politics will get interesting. Christie will want the support of Newark mayor Cory Booker behind the next superintendant. But there may be some bad blood there, as Booker supported Christie's call for a property tax constitutional amendment just before Christie abandoned that plan. There is a difference between being a steamroller and being a dealmaker, and it may be that the Governor is about to get schooled

If nothing else, it should be educational to watch two local politicians with national reputations come together for the sake of the kids.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The True Lesson From The Race To The Top

By now, everyone in the State has heard that New Jersey is not getting $400 million in Federal education aid and that Bret Schundler got thrown under the school bus. I don't quite understand what all the hubbub is about -- the Governor's decision not to cut a deal wiht the NJEA was what cost us the money. All the rest is political theater, and not very good theater at that. It does make me wonder whether or not the Governor's smearing of Schundler will cost him any points on the far right -- the folks Schundler was intended to help bring into the fold.

The true story from last week is that Washington, D.C. did qualify for $75 million in Race To The Top funds. The District's implementation of a teacher evaluation system that takes test scores into account was cited as one factor that helped the District into the winners' circle. In fact, test scores accounted for 50% of a teacher's evaluation.

This should be cause for great celebration on the right. District Chancellor Michelle Rhee is a favorite of proponents of charter schools, school vouchers and teacher union busting. The agreement between the district and the Washington Teachers Union is being hailed by some as an example of the direction school districts must take in their union negotiations.

The problem is that the District's teacher evalution process has proven to be somewhat controversial. According to the WTU and the American Federation of Teachers, Chancellor Rhee rushed her evaluation system into use before it was fully tested. The WTU is considering legal action pertaining to the firing of 6% of the District's teachers as a result of the allegedly flawed evaluations.

The issue is whether or not using one year's test scores to fire a teacher is an unfair labor practice. And there is data which strongly suggests that teacher evaluations which only take one year's work into account are flawed. The Wall Street Journal reports that "a large proportion of teachers who rate highly one year fall to the bottom of the charts the next year. For example, in a group of elementary-school teachers who ranked in the top 20% in five Florida counties early last decade, more than three in five didn't stay in the top quintile the following year, according to a study published last year in the journal Education Finance and Policy."

Problems with using test scores to evaluate teachers are well known. Students aren't always assigned to teachers randomly. A teacher who gets a higher percentage of lower scoring students due to that teachers' ability to help those students will be rewarded with a lower evaluation score. Elementary school teachers may only have 15 or 20 students, which is a very small pool on which to judge them. And while using test scores from multiple years helps, it does not solve the problem entirely. The Wall Street Journal cites a report from the Department of Education which shows that, even under an evaluation system using three years of data, one in four teachers will be misclassified.

Awareness of the dangers in rushing teacher evaluation systems into practice cuts across the political spectrum. The WSJ quoutes Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, as saying that "[b]ecause education tends to have this moral-crusade element . . . we tend to rush to use things before they are refined or really fully baked."

The Obama administration has been known to take the position that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. But at least with respect to teacher evaluations, let's hope that the majority of school districts out there recognize that there is no point to an evaluation process that weeds out the good teachers inadvertently.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Shadow Republican National Convention: The Republican Governors Association

According to the good folks at Inside Washington and Politico, Haley Barbour is the most powerful Republican in the country right now. That's because, as the head of the Republican Governors Association, Barbour has $40 million to spend on 2010 elections.

It's no secret that Michael Steele is having troubles at the Republican National Convention. Steele has recently taken remarkably progressive positions on gay marriage and abortion. Steele has also been charging speaking fees, which is highly unusual for someone his position; and he recently released a book without coordinating that release with Congressional Republicans. At least partially as a result, Steele and the RNC have been having trouble raising money.

Enter Haley Barbour, Mississippi Governor and former RNC Chairman. A Southern conservative and a friend of big oil, and an outspoken critic of Michael Steele, Barbour has been raising money hand over fist. And the message he's using to raise money? The Republican comeback started in Virginia and New Jersey.

In fact, just last week the RGA announced that it will be releasing a 20+ minute documentary about Chris Christie's successful gubernatorial campaign and his first 8 months in office.

So, in effect,we are seeing a schism in the Republican party at the national level. On the one hand, Michael Steele is trying to broaden the appeal of the party by moving away from the social conservative base and attracting independents and moderates. On the other hand, Haley Barbour is pulling the party's traditional, socially conservative Southern base around him.

And Barbour is using Chris Christie as bait.

Make no mistake -- to paraphrase the RGA, the battle starts here in New Jersey with Chris Christie.

The Cost Of Free Speech

I frequently like to compare events in Minnesota with events in New Jersey, since the two states are both blue states with red governors.

My most recent comparison pertains to the right's efforts to exploit the corporate free speech rights recently delineated by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FCC. These efforts are taking the form of independent organizations which solicit corporate donations in support of issues and/ or candidates. Frequently, these organizations are headed by current or former members of a particular organization.

For example, former George W. Bush White House Deputy Secretary of Labor Steven Law is president of a tax exempt group named American Crossroads. Advisors to this group include Karl Rove, former George W. Bush chief of staff and campaign advisor, and Ed Gillespie, Republican National Convention chairman during Bush's presidency.

In New Jersey, since the election of Chris Christie, a new tax exempt organization has started collecting and spending money in support of the Governor's agenda -- Reform Jersey Now. There is a high degree of crossover between the Christie administration and this political advocacy organization. For example, the treasurer of Christie's gubernatorial campaign, John Gravino, is also the treasurer of Reform Jersey Now. Former Christie campaign advisor and current Christie strategist Mike DuHaime is a spokesman for the group. Former Republican Governors Christie Todd Whitman and Donald DiFrancesco are advisors to the group, as is Christie advisor Bill Palatucci. Governor Christie himself was the keynote speaker at an event sponsored by Reform Jersey Now and organized by Ken Langone, the founder of Home Depot.

While it's clear that there is significant overlap among the State Republican party, the Christie administration and Reform Jersey Now, what is not clear is the identity of the donors to the group. State law does not require such disclosure. In the face of pressure from Democrats and from the press, DuHaime has promised to make such disclosure by the end of the year.

For its part, Minnesota has MN Forward, a pro-business political action committee managed by Brian McClung. McClung stepped down from his position as Minnesota Governor Pawlenty's spokesman to run the group. MN Forward claims to be a bi-partisan organization supporting pro-business candidates. It is not a tax exempt organization.

One big difference between Reform Jersey Now and MN Forward is that, under Minnesota law, MN Forward is required to disclose its donors. Thus, it is public knowledge that MN Forward's single largest contributor is Target, which contributed $150,000. Electronics retailer Best Buy donated $100,000.

And when MN Forward gave money to gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, Target found itself in an uncomfortable position. Emmer is pro-business, but he is also adamantly against gay marriage and pro-life. Target's customer base is decidedly progressive.

When news of Target's connection to Emmer became public, Target found its Minnesota headquarters to be the focus of demonstrations. A planned expansion into the San Francisco area may now be in jeopardy.

Target and Best Buy are now in negotiation with the Human Rights Campaign about making donations to progressive candidates, to offset their donations to MN Forward. Which means the companies may find themselves targeted by activists on the right.

All of which has brought a fresh layer of interest in the donors of Reform Jersey Now. It can't be long before State Senator Loretta Weinberg makes the connection between Governor Christie's veto of funding for women's health programs and Reform Jersey Now supporter Ken Langone, who was made a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope Benedict XVI. Or the NJEA and other public employee unions make the connection between Langone and Christie's anti-union agenda. All of which could make life interesting for New York University and Bucknell University, both recipients of largess from alumna Langone. Students tend to be pro-choice and pro-union, and NYU and Bucknell students may well be interested in the political positions of their schools' benefactor.

If DuHaime is good to his word and Reform Jersey Now donors are disclosed by the end of the year, there may be many companies in New Jersey who get to find out the true cost of free speech.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Quick Note On $175,000

I keep hearing that no one in the state should make more than the Governor, and that the Governor only makes $175,000 a year.

But the Governor also gets to live in Drumthwacket, the Governor's mansion, on the taxpayers' dime. And unless I miss my guess, that mansion comes with a staff, that includes meal preparation. And I'm pretty sure the Governor gets a car and driver on the taxpayers' dime.

So unless and until someone calculates the value of all those non-salary benefits that the Governor gets, I'm done with discussion of the $175,000 cap.

Friday, August 13, 2010

It's The Implementation, Stupid: Lessons from the D.C. School District

As I’ve discussed before, I think it’s interesting to check in on the job Michelle Rhee is doing as Schools Chancellor in Washington D.C. Ms Rhee, who succeeded current Newark, NJ Superintendent Clifford Janey, is a darling of the Wall Street Journal and the far right. While Mr. Janey is seen as the type of “careerist” who is ruining public education, Ms. Rhee is seen as a teacher union buster and school choice advocate who is just what public education needs -- a leader who is doing major reform at low cost.

Ms. Rhee has been making national headlines of late. Six or seven weeks ago, she entered into a new agreement with the Washington Teachers Union allowing for:

1. An end to “lock-step” pay for teachers;
2. The implementation of a voluntary performance-based compensation system; and
3. The end of tenure. Teachers can now be fired more easily, and now can be designated “marginally effective” and placed on probation for 2 years.

In exchange for these concessions, the union got an agreement that teachers rated highly would get more money (including a 21.6% pay increase through 2012 and opportunities for merit pay).

What happened next is open to interpretation. Ms. Rhee implemented a new performance review evaluation system which takes student test scores into account for those teaching reading and math in the 4th through 8th grades. Under that system, 241 teachers (6%) were fired, and an additional 17% were put on notice that if they don't improve next year, they could lose their jobs. Of the 241 fired, 165 were let go because of poor performance; the remainder didn't have proper teaching credentials. 16% of teachers received the highest possible ranking.

According to WTU President George Packer, Rhee’s evaluation system is flawed and unfairly assesses teacher performance. Other critics contend that the evaluation system was rushed into implementation before there was evidence to show it to be effective. The WTU is appealing the firings, and may file an unfair labor practice complaint with the District. The fact that Ms. Rhee said she couldn't break down how many teachers were being dismissed due to low student achievement versus those dismissed for poor performance does suggest that the system has some kinks that need to be worked out.

For my money, I don't understand how an evaluation system adopted after school let out for the summer could possible have led to teacher firings before school started up again in the fall. Were the evaluations completed before the agreement was signed? Is that possible?

The teacher evaluation system in question requires classroom observations, as well as evaluations 5 times a year by school administrators and master teachers. Teachers are critiqued on such things as creating coherent lesson plans and engaging students, and also are advised as to perceived weaknesses. Coaching is available to teachers.

It seems doubtful that the teachers fired this summer got the full benefit of the union's bargain. Sure, the 76 let go for improper teaching credentials are hard to defend (without knowing more -- for all we know before the current contract they were considered to be properly credentialed), but it seems that the remaining 165 let go for poor performance never got their coaching sessions or their chance to improve during the year-long evaluation process. Unless I'm missing something, I just don't see how a year long process got done over the summer when school was not in session.

What does this mean for New Jersey? First, it seems that the Governor is intent on creating the same conditions in New Jersey as those which allowed Ms. Rhee to negotiate her new union agreement. Specifically, 38% of D.C. students are in charter schools; there was also a school voucher system in place for a short period. These factors undermined the bargaining position of the union. Simply put, a strike would have been much less debilitating to the district and only further fueled the growth of charter schools.

All of which sheds new light on the Governor’s own interest in charter schools and voucher systems. The primary goal is to weaken the unions. Improving the educational process is a secondary concern. Remember, unions vote Democratic.

Second, the ability to beat a union into submission is different from the ability to manage labor relations. Once Ms. Rhee had won her contract, the smart move would have been to make sure that she had buy-in on her evaluation process. By so quickly dismissing so many teachers and putting twice as many in the doghouse, Ms. Rhee has accomplished at least two things. She has guaranteed that D.C. will be paying a lot of legal bills for a long time (so much for low cost reform), and she has guaranteed that any union faced with a similar proposed contract in future will fight it even harder than they did before.

But I believe the biggest lesson for New Jersey is the reality of government under idealogues. Ms Rhee negotiated safeguards into the teacher evaluation process and then just disregarded them for what I'm sure she believes is the greater good. In all fairness to Ms. Rhee, I'm not sure she is too concerned about the voting power of the teachers' union in D.C., since D.C. does not elect national legislators, but in the hands of someone who does care (like Chris Christie) this idealogical union busting, sold as being in the best interest of children but then administered so as to weaken the unions as much as possible, could go from problematic to dangerous.

If we're not careful, someone following Ms. Rhee's lead will be firing teachers first and asking questions later, hoping that a more Republican state government will be able to clean up the mess. The mess that students will be stuck with in the interim.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Quote of Note: It's Still The Checks and Balances, Stupid

Governor Christie chose to honor the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the U.S Supreme Court by reminding New Jerseyans that our State Supreme Court remains shy one Justice. Said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak:

“From nomination by President Obama to Senate confirmation yesterday, it took just 88 days for Elena Kagan to become the 112th Justice of the Supreme Court. Back at home, after 96 days without a hearing, there is no good and valid reason for the failure to give [New Jersey Supreme Court nominee] Anne Patterson the same consideration and deference.”

What Drewniak fails to mention is that there is no good and valid reason why there is a vacancy on the State Supreme Court to begin with.

Governor Christie chose not to re-nominate Justice John Wallace to the Court because the Governor wants to pack the Court with Justices who will overturn Abbott v. Burke and the line of cases that followed it. These cases require the State to re-allocate suburban property taxes to urban school districts. Had he been re-nominated, Wallace would have been able to serve for a little over 2 years before reaching the mandatory retirement age.

In response to charges that Governor Christie was politicizing the court by failing to consider Justice Wallace’s candidacy solely on his qualifications and not on his politics, the Governor claimed to have the right under the State constitution to boot Wallace. The Governor is a firm believer in using every arm of government as a political tool, just as Karl Rove used the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzalez as a political tool.

So how is it that Wallace has not been replaced yet? It seems that the same State constitution that allowed the Governor to sack Justice Wallace lacks a requirement for the Senate to confirm any replacement nominated by the Governor. Senate President Steve Sweeney says he will not consider swearing in a replacement until Wallace’s term has expired. i.e., for about 2 years.

Moreover, it seems that the Constitution was drafted with this type of stand-off in mind. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has the right to leave Wallace’s seat open or temporarily elevate the most senior Superior Court judge or a retired state Supreme Court judge. In other words, the Constitution includes a check on the Governor’s power over the judiciary.

So, if the Governor wants to exercise the full range of his Constitutional powers, he has no right to cry fowl when the legislature and the judiciary follow suit.

And what of Anne Patterson? At first glance, she seems to be an innocent victim. However, it is clear that she has promised the Governor that she will vote to overturn Abbott v. Burke and its progeny. In other words, she is prepared to decide cases on political factors and not solely on the facts of the case itself. Which means she has proven herself unworthy to sit on any bench anywhere.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The FMAP Train Comes In

Seems like the Governor, and the State, just caught a little bit of a break, thanks to Senate Democrats (and Maine Republicans).

New Jersey's budget depended on about $570 million in emergency Medicaid money -- more than half the states in the country also relied on the money -- which was to be made available by maintaining a temporary increase in the FMAP, or the percentage of Medicaid money the Federal government reimburses to the states. However, just before New Jersey passed its budget in late June, Senate Republicans in D.C. filibustered a bill extending the FMAP increase for another year (as well as extending unemployment benefits), now that national Republicans are all election year deficit hawks.

The filibuster meant that a whole lot of states had holes in their budgets. New Jersey's budget hole was about $570 million. However, Senate Democrats finally got Senators Snowe and Collins to vote for the bill, breaking the filibuster and freeing up the money for the states.

What's interesting is that the Governor continues to show a willingness to use Federal funds in a manner opposed by his national party. Nationally, Republicans are proposing to rescind ObamaCare; in New Jersey, the Governor is relying on ObamaCare to pay for pharmaceuticals for the elderly, the disabled and the HIV+. Nationally, the Republicans want the Federal government to spend less; in New Jersey, the Governor is taking the increased FMAP money without reservation.

By contrast, Tim Pawlenty wouldn't take Federal money to finance Minnesota's health care programs for the poor. Pawlenty would not allow an increased number of Minnesotans to enter Medicaid before they would otherwise be able (in 2014) because it would have been an approval of the type of big government with which Pawlenty does not agree.

Perhaps all it means is that when Christie seeks higher office, he will be running against Washington. Or as a "maverick," if that term has not been tarnished beyond repair.

In any event, since the budget already assumes the FMAP money will be available, the action by Senate Democrats won't fund anything new. It will just keep next year's deficit down.

UPDATE: The FMAP train came in about $200 million short, which means there's still a pretty sizable hole in the budget.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Right Choice For The Wrong Reason

The Governor is, by and large, a pretty predictable guy. Since the Governor is trying to fashion himself as a textbook conservative -- smaller government, no new taxes, family values -- it's usually pretty easy to guess where the Governor will land on any given issue.

$7.5 million for women's health? It was never going to happen, because there was a scintilla of a hint that the money would support (but not fund) abortions.

Millionaires' Tax? No brainer. It was never going to happen.

But this predictability makes the exceptions stand out all the more. It was surprising when the Governor dropped his insistence on a Constitutional amendment to cap property tax increases. Pragmatic and effective, yes, but surprising.

And when a pattern starts to emerge in the Governor's surprises, I grab onto them like tea leaves in a very dry cup. And here's what has my attention now.

1. After initially proposing to cut it, the Governor found $55.5 million dollars to fund the Pharmaceutical Assistance for the Aged and Disabled program. The money came from changes to Medicare Part D under ObamaCare, higher rebates from drug manufacturers to the State and increased use of generic drugs by seniors.

2. When 950 people were dropped from New Jersey's AIDS Drugs Assistance Program, the Governor found a way to replace the $7.9 million needed to allow these people to continue to receive their life-saving drugs, $2.9 million from a new Federal grant program and $5 million from additional rebates from pharmaceutical companies. While this proposal would cover AIDS drugs, it would not cover any other drugs AIDS patients may need to counter the side effects of treatment.

What do these two things have in common? On the political front, both moves by the Governor allowed him to score points against Democrats. One of the stated rationales for the Millionaires' Tax was to fund the Pharamceutical Assistance for the Aged and Disabled program. By finding the money for the program, the Governor removed that piece of the Democrat's argument.

The Governor's announcement regarding AIDS drugs came a day after Sen. Joseph Vitale, a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, issued a public statement asserting that the expected increase in pharmaceutical rebates would be enough to maintain the ADAP program, meaning that AIDS patients would continue to receive all their current medications. In making his announcement, the Governor accused Sen. Vitale of playing politics with people's lives, saying that had the Sen. picked up the phone to call the Governor, the Sen. could have saved the paper the letter was written on. Of course, if the Governor had told the Governor's Advisory Council on HIV/ AIDS that a fix was in the works, things also would have been different. And if the Governor had found the fix BEFORE sending out letters to patients telling them they were being cut off at the end of July, this whole brouhaha could have been avoided.

So, it seems that the Governor will find the money for pharmaceuticals if it means he gets to score political points against Democratic legislators.

Also, while women's health is a decidedly liberal cause, prescriptions for seniors is neither conservative nor liberal. So funding prescriptions for seniors is politically productive for the Governor. And support for AIDS patients plays well in communities of color and in the churches of Camden and Newark, where the AIDS epidemic is thriving in New Jersey.

So, it seems that the Governor will find the money for health care if it is for a key voting bloc, such as seniors and communities of color, but not for anything associated with abortion.

Another coincidence is how the Governor funded both initiatives -- federal funds plus pharmaceutical rebates. And in both instances, the Governor claims to have "found" new Federal funds and "negotiated" increased rebates.

But at least with respect to AIDS drugs, the increased rebates were negotiated by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors -- not the Governor. That's how Sen. Vitale and the Advisory Committee knew about them. And as for new Federal grants for AIDS meds, that was announced in early July. In other words, the Governor didn't do anything except admit that cuts to ADAP were unnecessary.

And with respect to PAAD, the ObamaCare money was available before the Governor decided to cut the program. I can't say for sure about the pharmaceutical rebates, but clearly to some extent the Governor merely acknowledged the existence of money he had previously chosen to ignore.

So, it seems that the Governor is not telling the truth about how he funded these pharmaceutical access programs, or why. And what remains totally unclear is why both of these "surprises" had to do with pharmaceuticals. I mean, isn't there anything else the Governor has found a way to save, something that does not rely on ObamaCare and pharmaceutical company rebates?

Personally, I'm happy that seniors are getting their PAAD benefits and that AIDS patients are getting some of the medication they need. I just wish that the Governor was doing the right thing for the right reason. Because being able to consistantly expect the Governor to do the right thing for the right reason would restore my faith in government, which is being sorely tested these days.

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's The Cover-Up, Stupid

It was just a few days ago that the results of Federal Prosecutor Nora Dannehy's investigation into the firing of 9 U.S. Attorneys closed up shop, finding no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Not so fast.

Questions about the report were immediate. Why did Dannehy only focus on the firing of David Iglesias, and not on the fact pattern(s) pertaining to all 9 terminations? Why didn't Dannehy investigate what the other U.S. Attorney's were doing to keep their jobs in the politicized environment at Justice under Alberto Gonzalez? And why was Nora Dannehy chosen to run this probe in the first place?

The answers to these questions are not pretty.

Four days before Dannehy's appointment by Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to head the DOJ probe into the allegedly politically-motivated terminations, a Federal appeals court ruled that a team of Federal prosecutors led by Dannehy suppressed evidence in a political bribery case involving Connecticut Treasurer Paul Silvester. This ruling resulted in the reversal of seven convictions against Charles B. Spadoni. Spadoni still faced a charge for obstruction of justice.

Normally, a Federal prosecutor found guilty of suppressing evidence in a political prosecution, or any prosecution, would face some sort of internal investigation. But Dannehy was instead given a high profile national assignment. A national investigation into the firing of Federal prosecutors who refused to bring politically motivated prosecutions. And an investigations into the politically motivated prosecutions being brought by the Federal prosecutors who were keeping their jobs.

Simply put, Dannehy was assigned to investigate herself. There was no way she could implicate any Federal prosecutor for their conduct in political cases without implicating herself.

And in an odd coincidence, Dannenhy's supervisor on the Spadoni case, John H. Durham, was also appointed to run a national investigation by Mukasey -- the suspected destruction of dozens of recordings of interrogations of alleged terrorists by CIA personnel. Not only is that investigation still on-going, it has been expanded by Attorney General Holder to include DOJ decision makers.

Conventional wisdom since Watergate has been that it's not the crime that gets you, it's the cover-up. So now the question becomes whether or not Dannehy's investigation, with its extremely limited focus, was itself part of a cover-up.

And there are a lot of people who want to know the answer to that question. Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who claims to have been the victim of politically motivated prosecution, wants to know the answer. Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens wants to know the answer.

And right here in New Jersey, Louis Manzo wants to know the answer. Former Assemblyman and Jersey City mayoral candidate Manzo was indicted along with 46 others in what Manzo claims was a politically motivated case aimed at bolstering the campaign of then-candidate and Federal prosecutor Chris Christie.

And I'll bet Senator Robert Menendez wants to know the answer. Then Federal prosecutor Chris Christie brought an indictment against a Bergen county anti-poverty agency with ties to Menendez that almost threw the 2006 election to Tom Keane, Jr. Menendez wants his name cleared, as the investigation is over and no charges have been brought.

So it looks like a few people are asking what Chris Christie was doing that not only kept him in his job as a Federal prosecutor under Alberto Gonzalez, but actually got Christie appointed as a member of Gonzalez' advisory panel.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Does A Refusal To Indict Mean Everything Is Alright?

The U.S. Justice Department has issued a report on the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. To be specific, the report looked for evidence of public corruption, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and mail fraud in the firing of 9 U.S. Attorneys.

The report, submitted by Connecticut prosecutor Nora Dannehy, found that Iglesias was fired for political reasons. The head of New Mexico's Republican Party complained to the White House about Iglesias' refusal to bring voter fraud charges against the liberal group Acorn and his refusal to indict a local Democratic official. Former Senator Pete Domenici also made calls to the White House to complain about Iglesias.

Initially, Justice claimed that it had fired Iglesias for poor performance, but internal White House documents proved this not to be true. Iglesias was removed without anyone at Justice bothering to figure out if Iglesias had actually done anything wrong.

But, concludes Dannehy, that's not a crime, and it was not an effort to influence prosecutions. Apparently, there were no prosecutions to influence. Also, there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with lying to Congress or to investigators, or evidence of any indictable wrongdoing. Which is what happens when the most frequent answer given is "I cannot recall."

This report is relevant to New Jersey today because Chris Christie was a U.S. Attorney at the time Iglesias was fired, and he was also an advisor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. As such, Christie had a front row seat to the politicization of the Justice Department, if not an active role. Certainly he had a role in announcing an investigation that hurt Robert Menendez in the final months of the 2006 campaign -- an investigation that remains open while never resulting in a single charge.

And as the Governor seeks to collapse all State investigative power into the executive branch, seeks to bring all county prosecutors under the control of Trenton, intimidates the Judiciary by refusing to reappoint Supreme Court Justices who won't promise to decide school funding cases in the way the Governor chooses, seeks to purge experienced school administrators from the public school system, seeks to destroy failing public schools and replace them with taxpayer supported private schools (secular and non-secular), and seizes control of one of the States premiere tourist attractions, it is important to remember that this Governor knows how to politicize what are supposed to be independent entities within the bounds of the law.

There is a difference between saying that there is no indictable crime and saying that nothing wrong happened. But our Governor does not appear to acknowledge that he did anything wrong, or saw anything wrong, in the Alberto Gonzalez Justice Department. That is evident in the way the Governor continues to use every State agency as a means to a political end.

And while that may not be criminal, that's just plain wrong.

Governor Christie Finds Something Else To Take Over

The Governor has announced a plan to bring the Atlantic City boardwalk, including the casinos and entertainment facilities, under State control. Seeing as how the recently ended State takeover of Camden is generally viewed as a failure, one has to wonder why the Governor thinks this is a good idea.

There is the report of the Governor's Advisory Commission on New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment, which is the apparent impetus for the State takeover. But while that report recommended State oversight of Atlantic City, it did not recommend an outright takeover. The stated rationale for the takeover is that Atlantic City's local government is too inefficient and corrupt to effect change.

What is clear is that there is a definite trend of consolidating power in Trenton. All of the State's investigative power, with the exception of the State Commission of Investigation, is now in the executive branch. The State Commission was almost merged into the executive branch as well. It's entirely likely that before long control of county prosecutors will rest in the executive branch, under the auspices of the Attorney General. And now control of one of the State's premiere tourist attractions lies in Trenton. All of which has me turning into a bone fide conspiracy theorist.

Here's my latest totally unfounded conspiracy theory. Many people have wondered why Steve Sweeney and Chris Christie have formed such a tight bond. Perhaps a deal was made -- Sweeney's support for a 2% cap in exchange for an agreement to restrict all gaming to Atlantic City and to deny the State's racetracks the ability to operate slot machines, as they do in neighboring states. And now maybe the Governor has taken control of Atlantic City as a means to keep the state's most powerful Democrat in check.

And if there was a deal, how would taxpayers ever find out about it? In years past, perhaps the Inspector General would have investigated the Governor's actions. But now the Inspector General works for the Governor. Certainly the State Commission of Investigation could investigate. But seeing as how it just escaped the budget knife, would the SCI actively investigate the Governor now?

Perhaps the New Jersey Racing Commission or the Division of Gaming Enforcement would investigate. But those entities are within the Office of the Attorney General, who is about to have her power increased by gaining control over all the county prosecutors. Surely the Attorney General is not going to attack the Governor at this time.

If nothing else, this plan for the takeover of the Atlantic City casinos is a terrific illustration of the danger of allowing a Governor to concentrate State power to the extent this Governor has. It means the end of transparency and accountability in government.

So I admit it, my conspiracy theory is unfounded. But the impact of the consolidation of power in Trenton is real.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Quote of Note: The Campaign Against Competence Continues

Governor Christie has announced a plan to cap the salaries of public school administrators outside of the 16 largest school districts at $175,000, the same amount as the Governor makes. That means that 70% of the superintendents in the system are looking at a pay cut. The State aims to save local municipalities $10 million.

Salary limits would also apply to nontenured assistant superintendents and business administrators. In addition, Education Commissioner Bret Schundler suggests that this may encourage districts to share superintendents and staff. Both of these facts would yield additional savings.

Although merit-based pay increases will be possible, the bulk of compensation will be based on the number of students served, and merit pay would not be count towards pensions.

At its core, this legislation seeks to stop the bidding war among school districts for administrators. Says the Governor:

"People are bouncing around like free agents in baseball, and getting higher and higher salaries as they go. What we're trying to do here is to shift the paradigm."

For their part, superintendents say that they deserve their salaries through their specialized understanding of personnel, finance, curriculum, administration and school-construction issues. New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio says that the cap will put the State at a disadvantage in attracting qualified candidates.

In response, the Governor has said that if the sole reason an administrator is working in public education is the money, we don't want that administrator anyway.

And therein lies the theme here. As we saw in the Governor's treatment of Clifford Janey, as echoed on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, the Governor does not believe in public education "careerists." This is nothing short of an attempt to purge senior administrators from New Jersey's public education system. And since this plan can be implemented by the Governor without a need for legislative approval, it's a done deal.

So add this to the Governor's attempts to undermine public education in this State. The Governor seeks to make private school more viable through a voucher system that pulls money out of failing public schools, has already instigated a landslide of public teacher retirements through changes to pension benefits, and now seeks to limit the pool of experienced and qualified public school administrators.

Christie's Karl Rove Style Power Grab Continues

Showing a mastery of the Friday press release, on Friday the 16th the Governor announced a task force to study a State takeover of county prosecutors. The Governor is questioning whether or not the state needs 21 sex crimes units and 21 gangs units. State Attorney General Paula Dow will make the final recommendation.

On its face, this is a rational cost saving measure. In context, however, this is another step in a march towards consolidating investigative power in the executive branch, i.e., in the hands of New Jersey's Governor, who is already the most powerful Governor in the country by means of the New Jersey Constitution.

By way of reminder, as a Federal prosecutor Chris Christie was one of seventeen members of an advisory council to Alberto Gonzalez. As such, Christie had a front row seat to the politicization of the Justice Department.

And in 2006, shortly before the 2006 election, Federal prosecutor Christie brought an indictment against an anti-poverty organization in Bergen County with ties to Senator Robert Menendez. The indictment was announced a month or so before voters went to the polls to choose between re-electing Menendez or voting for his Republican rival, State Senator Tom Keane, Jr. Menendez and Kean were in a very tight race. Four years later, no charges have been brought as a result of the indictment, yet the indictment remains open and Menendez cannot clear his name.

Finally, this year the Governor moved to bring almost all of the State's investigative control under the wing of the executive branch. The Public Advocate has been eliminated, and both the independent Inspector General and the independent Medicaid Inspector General have been merged into the State Comptrollers Office, which is in the executive branch. The sole holdout is the State Commission of Investigation, which is housed in the legislature.

So will the county prosecutors be merged into a State agency similar to the Department of Justice? It depends on whether or not Paula Dow will choose to vastly expand her personal power and influence. In other words, there's a very good chance.

Which means that this Governor, who has a history of using the investigative power of the State and the power of the indictment for purely political motives is amassing a frightening amount of power.

Monday, July 12, 2010

News Flash: Republican Privatization Task Force Supports Chris Christie

A great deal of press attention has been given to the report issued by the New Jersey Privatization Task Force. In a nutshell, the report says that by engaging private contractors to provide for multiple services currently provided by public employees, the State could save about $210 million.

Now, the State budget is $29.4 billion dollars. This report is highlighting ways to save less than 1% of the State's annual costs. So at first blush, this seemed like much ado about nothing. But as I read the report, certain aspects of the analysis and certain facts leapt out at me.

First of all, this was a study about the privatization of services, not assets. While couched in terms about bringing competition into the provision of public services, it would be fair to say that this was a report analyzing how to take jobs away from public employees, i.e., another salvo in the Governor's war on public employee unions. In fact, the Civil Service laws and the Displaced Workers Pool are cited as impediments to privatization.

Second, there were 5 members of the task force. Dick Zimmer is a former Republican Congressman (and State Assemblyman and Senator). Todd Caligone is President of ANW/ Crestwood, a New Jersey paper company. Kathleen Davis is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Chamber of Commerce of South Jersey. John Galadank is President of the Commerce & Industry Association of New Jersey, a free enterprise advocacy group. P. Kelly Hatfield is a former Republican candidate for Congress.

The fact that this group issued a pro-privatization report is about as surprising as Donald Trump issuing a statement in favor of beauty pageants. In fact, this group is so pro-privatization that it is proposing privatization as a solution to problems created by privatization.

Third, this report makes clear that not every private service provider would be eligible to bid in this public service marketplace. Only qualified bidders with strong balance sheets would be eligible; contracts would be awarded based on merit-based criteria and follow a documented scoring system. So not only would there be no preference for minority owned businesses which have been locked out of certain industries for or small businesses, there would be an institutionalized bias against such bidders.

So make no mistake about it, this Report is a not a fact-finding endeavor, it is a means to promote Governor Christie's pre-existing policy goals.

For example, one privatization proposal is a school voucher program. It's a 5 year "pilot" program that starts providing 3,200 scholarships a year, and ramps up to 16,000 scholarships in year 5. Scholarships would be provided by private corporations and would be capped at the amount the scholarship-recipients' school spends per pupil. The scholarships can be used for public and private schools. Exactly what public service is to be provided by private service providers under this proposal is unclear. What is clear is that this same program has already been proposed by Governor Christie.

However, the proposal that pushes this report into the area of farce pertains to special education students. Those disabled students who are not making progress in their public schools could get a scholarship to attend either another public school or a private school. The scholarship would be capped at the lesser of the amount the unacceptable school spent on that student or the tuition and fees at a private school. There is no mention of the cost of transporting the child to and from the new school.

The problem is that, under current law, all students are entitled to a free appropriate public education. Which means that disabled students who are not making progress in their public school are entitled to attend private school on the public dime, i.e., at no cost to the student for tuition or travel. In other words, special education has already been privatized in this State.

But private schools charge too much. And private bus companies charge too much. So this particular venture into privatization has proven to be a budget buster for school districts, which are obligated to pay what the private service providers charge.

And so the solution is to partially privatize the payment of private school tuition, and shift the remainder of those costs plus the cost of transportation to the disabled student. Yes, this privatization proposal would increase the cost to the taxpayer of educating special needs students. A Special Needs Student Tax, if you will.

Clearly, this proposal is not about bringing competition into the special education services market. This is about reducing property taxes for the majority by making special needs students pay more for their own education.

Other privatization proposals suggest introducing the profit motive into areas that impact public health and safety. For example, the report suggests privatizing the investigation of Workmen's Compensation claims. I can just imagine the compensation of investigators being based on keeping awarded claims under a certain financial benchmark -- the way private insurance companies work. The report also suggests water and waste treatment facilities should be privatized, which gives rise to visions of accountants balancing the cost of completely purifying water against the cost of paying claims to the people who get sick from tainted water. And the report also suggests that hospital debt collection should be privatized. Which means people who cannot afford health care will now be hounded by private debt collectors.

This report is so blatantly biased and so transparent in its political motivation that one has to wonder whether or not the point was to actually promote privatization. Surely, the Governor knows that no proposals from so partisan a task force will be taken up by the Democratic-controlled legilature.

The only reasonable interpretation of this report is as a piece of campaign literature. This is Chris Christie polishing his far right credentials on the taxpayers' dime.

Now if we could only get Chris Christie to privatize his endless self-promotional activities and stop using the resources of the State to further his personal agenda and career.