Monday, May 31, 2010

Meet Tim Pawlenty

David Gregory has an hour-long interview with Tim Pawlenty as part of his Meet The Press Across America series.  Highlights are:

1.  His repeated statement that he supports K-12 education, followed by his explanation that the reason Minnesota will have a $3 billion deficit in its next 2-year budget cycle is because the Democrats in the legislature would not make his $1.9 billion in cuts to education permanent.

2.  His statement that he would propose converting Medicaid into a block grant to states, capping the Federal government's obligation.  But he would increase funding for patrolling the border.

Follow this link for a preview of things to come.

Return of the Unitary Executive

NJ Spotlight reports that the Perth Amboy school district has filed a lawsuit claiming that Governor Christie has exceeded his powers as Governor.  By executive order, the Governor withheld $475 million in state aid payments to schools across New Jersey.  Perth Amboy, which lost $15 million as a result, claims that the Governor illegally superseded a statute duly passed by the legislature.

This is at least the third lawsuit alleging Governor Christie is acting beyond his Constitutional mandate.  When Governor Christie sought to hold labor unions to the same campaign finance limits as businesses, the unions sued.  When the Governor re-wrote collective bargaining agreements with public unions to require public employees to contribute to their health care, the unions sued again,  

It reminds me of Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota being sued for "unallotting" items in the State's budget approved by the legislature.  But even more so, it reminds me of Dick Cheney and the theory of the unitary executive.

Under the Federal Constitution, the President is vested with executive power.  Unitary executive theory holds that this exclusive vesting gives the President the sole power to set policy.  In its most extreme version, unitary executive theory holds that neither the judiciary nor the Congress can exert any power over the President, especially on national security matters.

At heart the unitary executive theory is an argument in favor of a government led by a strong father figure, a disciplinarian.  Its proponents would take us back to the era before Watergate when a President was above question and above the law.  Because what this country needs is to stop all this political correctness nonsense, end this obsessive questioning of authority and get done what needs to get done (in the view of those who know better)..

And then it hits me.  Chris Christie is trying to be a unitary executive for New Jersey.  By that I mean a chiding disciplinarian who is going to overrule the legislature, intimidate the judiciary, shut down the programs for the poor that the State cannot afford, break the backs of the unions that have gotten to big for their own good and return us to an era when the State was not responsible for creating a level playing field in any arena.

So it's not that the budget crisis is causing Chris Christie to shrink the size of government.  No, just as George Bush used 9/11 as political cover for a long-standing neo-conservative agenda which included starting a war with Iraq; and just as Barack Obama used the financial meltdown as a justification for a long-standing liberal proposal for a national health care plan; Chris Christie is using our State's budget crisis to push a far right agenda that would never be acceptable to New Jerseyans under normal circumstances.

Friday, May 28, 2010

It's The Economy, Stupid!

I keep hearing from Republicans that rich people are fleeing New Jersey because of our high taxes.  And I've been curious about the basis of this claim.

It turns out that The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College; that study examined the net wealth of New Jersey from 1998 to 2008.  According to the study, between 1998 and 2003, there was a net gain in State wealth of $98 billion; and between 2004 and 2008, there was a net loss of $70 billion.

Chamber of Commerce chairman Dennis Bone says the study shows that higher taxes on high earners are driving high earners out of the State.

I still don't get it

First, I have to point out that this study was commissioned by The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.  Is it really any surprise that the Chamber is interpreting this study as stating that taxes are too high?  I'm willing to bet that if the Chamber read my tea leaves, the Chamber would say that the clear meaning is that taxes are too high.

Second, the study looked at wealth, not income.  Wealth is the value of assets net of debt at any given time, according to the study.  So, when we evaluate the increase in wealth moving to New Jersey from New York during the housing bubble, do we factor in that people were selling their million dollar one-bedroom condos to buy 6 bedroom houses?  And when we evaluate the loss of wealth of New Jersey residents during the Great Recession, do we consider that tax laws were not the outcome determinative factor in most financial decisions being made at that time?

The study does acknowledge that some of the migration trends in New Jersey appear to be part of a trend affecting New York and Connecticut, and in some instances the entire Northeast.  And the study actually concludes that New Jersey is losing wealth more because of a decline in wealthy families moving in-state than from an increase in wealthy families moving out of state.

So, it seems that the Chamber of Commerce is stretching the truth, to put it mildly, when it says that wealthy households are leaving the State because of our taxes.

Now if we could just get the Democrats to say that the Governor has no clothes when he repeats this specious claim, the citizens of this State might have some hope of an intelligent dialogue on taxes and budgets.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chris Christie Hearts Obamacare

Two news stories caught my eye recently.  One discussed how the Governor is cutting $5.5 million in State aid to school nutrition programs.  The other discussed how the Governor is restoring $55.5 million in proposed budget cuts to prescription drug assistance programs for seniors.  And I'm wondering why these two programs are being treated differently by our Governor.

Both budget cuts seem to be part and parcel of the Governor's overall agenda to shrink the size of government.  Sure, I could make some point about how the nutrition program will disparately impact poor school districts where the schools are already struggling, and is probably another salvo in the Governor's war to privatize public schools.  And that the prescription drug benefit goes to seniors who vote in higher numbers than the general population.

But in the end, I think this is just a story about political opportunism.  Democrats in the Senate and Assembly said they would pass a millionaires' tax to pay for the prescription drug benefit.  So the Governor restored the prescription drug benefit as a pre-cursor to vetoing the millionaires' tax.  And since there was no political benefit to either the Democrats or the Republicans in haggling over the nutrition program, out it went.

But buried in the fine print of the Governor's plan to restore seniors' prescription drug benefits is an interesting fact.  The Governor claims to finance the $55.5 million prescription drug benefit with $13 million in drug-rebate programs, $10.4 million in savings by greater use of generic drugs, $22.8 million in savings the State will realize as a result of expanded eligibility for federal health care programs, and $9.3 million in savings from a Medicare change.

Meaning -- wait for it -- Obamacare is providing about $32 million of the $55.5 million the Governor has cobbled together.

Why the Democrats won't highlight the fact that our small-government Governor is taking advantage of the very type of government expansion he has sworn to fight simply escapes me.  What better evidence could you ask for that smaller government is not a panacea?  What better evidence could you ask for that the Governor is vulnerable, that his philosophical purity goes right out the window when he has the chance to reward his benefactors with lower taxes?

For some reason, the only statement reported was Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver promising to raise taxes.  And I'm sure Ms. Oliver sits up nights wondering how we got a Republican Governor in this blue state.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Small Government In Action

Today's Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine operated by Massey Energy Company in West Virgina.

The article discusses how the mine circumvented inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.  MSHA inspections were only conducted during the day, so miners who worked other shifts did not benefit from those inspections.  And when MSHA inspectors came onto the property, the words "we've got a man on the property" were radioed throughout the mine so that evidence of safety violations could be hidden.

And what were those safety violations? Massey had illegal mine evacuation procedures and regularly failed to hang ventilation curtains or conduct any safety operations that interfered with or delayed the production of coal, all despite the fact that the mine was filled with a high level of explosive methane gas.

Steve Morgan, whose 21 year old son Adam died in the explosion, tells a particularly painful story.  His son was an apprentice, but was required to work alone, in violation of federal safety laws.  Adam was sent home a week before the blast because of high gas levels.  And when Adam complained, his boss suggested that perhaps Adam was in the wrong line of work.

So don't call this explosion an accident.  It was an inevitability caused by corporate greed and government ineptitude.

This is what small government looks like

So here in New Jersey, home to many chemical labs and food processing plants, we need to think very, very carefully before we decide that we want a smaller government.

Quote Of Note: Rand Paul's Boot Is Not Walking Away Anytime Soon

The Wall Street Journal quotes Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as saying that the US government will keep it's boot on BP's neck until the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is cleaned up.

Too bad that all that Mr. Salazar seems to have taken from Rand Paul is a sound bite.  I'd much prefer it if the Secretary would say what he means and mean what he says, the way Mr. Paul does.  And talk about the issues, like the Federal government's responsibility for the oil spill.

Please, Mr. Salazar, the environment is polluted enough, just do your job better.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Quotes Of Note: Chris Christie to the Rescue

The editorial page of today's Wall Street Journal ran a piece entitled "Born To Veto" which states, in relevant part:  "Mr. Christie continues to stand out as a lone voice of economic sanity in Trenton and as a national fiscal leader, we hope taxpayers rally around him."

Make no mistake.  What happens in New Jersey in the next 2 years and 4 years is of national significance.  And unless the taxpayers of this State rally against Chris Christie and his tea party policies that bankrupt public schools, demonize public employee unions, hand tax breaks to the rich and give welfare to corporations, we will have no one to blame but ourselves when the Pawlenty-Christie show goes national.

Wake up and be heard.

It's A Rand New Day

In the "be careful what you wish for" category, Rand Paul is now the Republican candidate for Senate in Kentucky.

First, let me say that I like Rand Paul.  I like people who mean what they say and say what they mean.  Rand Paul strikes me as a thoughtful and sincere man of conviction,  I don't need to agree with him to respect him.  For that matter, I have a lot more respect for him than I do for Paul Begala and the DSCC, from whom I received a fundraising letter telling me that all I need to know about Rand Paul is that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin love him.

As you would expect from anyone named after Ayn Rand, Rand Paul is a libertarian.  He believes in a very limited role for government.  And since his nomination he has said a couple of things that have gotten a lot of attention.

First, he has said that the Federal government should not be involved in requiring small businesses to conduct their affairs in a non-discriminatory manner.  He believes in the Civil Rights Act, he believes in the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, and while he believes the government does have a role in eliminating institutional racism he does not think that it is government's role to meddle in the affairs of private business.

Truth be told, I'm not sure why this has gotten so much attention.  This is pretty much libertarianism 101.  But my guess is that race is a very big issue in the tea party movement; that the press has been aching to talk about the racist overtones of the "Take back our country" mantra of the tea party (i.e., take back our country from that black guy those liberals elected); and that Rand Paul has opened the door for this discussion by publicly speaking about civil rights.

I do not believe that Rand Paul is a racist.  I take him at his word that he believes that the Federal government should play a limited role.  Just as I believe that the Federal government should play a more expansive role.  I think the Federal government should make sure that every American has the same access to the same privileges.  Which means a woman in any state should be able to get an abortion if that is her choice; that a person of any color or sexual orientation should be able to walk into any business establishment anywhere in the country and get the same level of service; and that all children should have access to the same quality education.  I believe government should level the playing field and Rand Paul believes that the marketplace should level the playing field.

As I was thinking about Mr. Paul's views, I found myself wondering what his views were on the oil leak fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.  He wants business to operate free from government interference to the greatest extent possible; but here is a business that has created a huge problem.  Mr. Paul was quoted as saying that he had heard nothing from BP to indicate that it wouldn't pay for the spill; and that he thought President Obama was putting his boot heel to the neck of BP.

Says Mr. Paul:  "And I think it's part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it's always got to be somebody's fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen. . . .We had a mining accident that was very tragic. . . .Then we come in and it's always somebody's fault.  Maybe sometimes accidents happen."

Here, now, I do start to lose a little respect for Mr. Paul's position.  First, he's talking about BP as if it's a person with a neck.  And describing the President as using his boot heel as a weapon has a totalitarian connotation -- a suggestion of the merger of the military and the state. Military dictators use their boot heels the way Mr. Paul describes President Obama's actions.  OK, fine, I'll say it, it sounds like a reference to the black power movement of the 60s and 70s.  It's just an unfortunate word choice.

Second, as I tell my 6 year old daughter, accidents are when something unexpected happens.  But when you are doing something you are not supposed to be doing and something bad happens, that's not an accident, that's an inevitability.  So when you are operating a mine and you refuse to follow safety suggestions from people whose job it is to keep mines safe, and then the mine explodes, that's not an accident.  And when you operate an off-shore drill assembly and you fail to properly close off an undersea oil well and you use faulty fail-safe equipment without properly testing it and you use a chemical to clean up the mess that is too toxic and inefficient and the result is the biggest environmental mishap in the history of the country, that's not an accident.

But most importantly is this belief that somehow BP is going to pay for the destruction of an ecosystem.  Like you can buy an ecosystem.  Ecosystems are not bought and sold; they are created and destroyed.

And still, I have to say I respect Rand Paul.  I disagree with him fundamentally on the proper role of government, I think he is blessed with a lead tongue on racial issues, but I respect the hell out of his honesty and straightforwardness.  What you see (and hear) is what you get.  I wish more politicians were like that.

So, here in New Jersey, what can we learn from Rand Paul?  That when our Governor says he is going to shrink government, he's really talking about getting government off the necks of businesses so they will be free to make mistakes that they cannot fix.  That he is going to stop the State from leveling the playing field.  And that he is going to make us all free to fail.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

As Minnesota Goes . . .

Since Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is a front-runner for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination, and since Mr. Pawlenty is playing to the same tea party faithful as is our Governor Christie, and since I see a lot of similarities in the way Pawlenty has run Minnesota and the way Christie intends to run New Jersey, I think what happens in Minnesota may hold some clues as to what the future holds for New Jersey.

In 2009, Governor Pawlenty sought to balance the State budget by "unalloting" budget items approved by the legislature.  When the State Supreme Court ruled Pawlenty's "unalloting" unconstitutional, the State was faced with a $3 billion budget gap.

So the Governor and the legislature got together and hammered out a budget deal.  Most of the "unallotments" were ratified by the legislature.  Minnesota closed its budget gap by delaying $1.9 billion in payments to elementary and secondary schools, which had been due by June, 2011.  In exchange, the Governor agreed to allow his successor to decide whether or not to move low-income Minnesotans from a State health plan to Medicaid earlier than 2014, when they are already scheduled to become eligible for Medicaid.  And there will be no increase in taxes.

So Governor Pawlenty has a public relations victory on which to launch his Presidential campaign.  Balanced budget, no new taxes, not allowing the courts to legislate from the bench, etc.

And what about Minnesota?  Those deferred payments to the schools?  There will be no money to pay those amounts anytime soon.  In fact, there is a projected $5.8 billion deficit in the State's next 2 year budget cycle.  So that part of the bargain is fictional.

And the likelihood that low-income Minnesotans will be enrolled in Medicaid early?  Governor Pawlenty has already gone on record as saying it's a bad idea, as has State Representative and Republican endorsed gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.  In fact, the gubernatorial election will largely function as a mandate on the Medicaid enrollment proposal.

Now, it is true that Minnesota has not supported a GOP candidate for President since Nixon.  But at the state and local level, elections are competitive.  So early expanded Medicaid access is no sure thing.  Meaning what the Governor gave in the bargain may not have been anything of substance.

So what we have is a political win for Pawlenty, and a gap in the next budget cycle almost twice the size of the deficit being avoided now for Minnesotans.  Plus a school funding crisis and little change of reducing health care payments until 2014.

Where the tea party leads, chaos follows.

Here in New Jersey, our Governor repeatedly says he does not care about being re-elected.  He will not raise taxes, and has cut aid to schools and municipalities across the state.  He wants to send corporate income tax dollars to private schools at the expense of already failing public schools.  He is doing everything he can to knock unionized labor out of the middle class.

For himself, he will build a tea party approved resume.  But at the expense of public employees and public schools.

So to the Democrats in New Jersey government who think there is middle ground to find with Governor Christie, take note.  The only way to win the tea party game is to refuse to play.  Override the Governor's veto of the reinstated millionaire's tax; vote down his plan to cap property tax increases at 2.5%; and wait to negotiate with the unions until the Governor has pounded his head against a stone wall long enough to realize that he has no political future in or out of New Jersey unless he stops padding his tea party resume and actually takes the long term needs of the State into account.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quote Of Note: Mitch McConnell Runs From The Truth

On NBC's Meet The Press, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said "The American people have taken a look at what this administration has done.  They're running banks, insurance companies, car companies.  They nationalized the student loan business which will kill 31,000 private sector jobs.  It's taken over health care.  They're about to do to financial services what they did to health care.  The American people are appalled at all this."

I have to admit that I am having visions of the tea party faithful driving to a Mitch McConnell fundraiser in Ford F-150's, Chevy Silverados and GMC Sierras (gun racks and Confederate flag decals optional) where they will be encouraged to speak out against the government's successful effort to save the American auto industry and burn their Bank of America ATM cards.

Seriously, I do wonder how many tea party activists have children who want to go to college.  And how many can't afford healthcare.  And how many lost their retirement savings in the past few years.  And I'm wondering why Mitch McConnell, Senator since 1984, doesn't tell these people how much they are personally benefiting from the very government policies McConnell believes are appalling to them.

The answer is simple.  Mitch McConnell cares more about preserving his power in the Republican Party and the Senate than he does about telling the American people the truth.

And the truth is, no farmer or small business owner or entrepreneur or patriot would have been better off if the financial industry had failed and the auto industry had failed and the banking industry had failed, nor will they be if the health care system fails and the financial services industry remains unchecked.

But the truth is usually the first victim in an election year, closely followed by the electorate at large.

It's Time For The Competent Party!

I was talking with my partner in paranoia Kelly tonight about whether or not the time is finally right for a third party.  We both see some possible scenarios, although we both acknowledge that the possibility remains remote.  Still . . .

Kelly thinks the most likely scenario is that the tea party right will ultimately break from the Republican Party to form an independent party, leaving the Republicans as a moderate minority party and the Democrats as the majority.  That's because there is no strong pull to the left from within the Democratic Party to serve as a counterweight against the tea party.

So, to an extent, Kelly is in agreement with Olympia Snowe (and yes, Kelly, the irony is not lost on me).  Snowe believes it's possible that the Republican party will purge itself of everyone other than the tea party faithful and become a philosophically consistent minority party.

Me, I see things differently.  I see the tea party tsunami as sweeping away both moderate Republicans and incumbents of both parties.  In the words of Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, "If the choice is a government that speaks to someone else and no government at all, the voters will take no government at all."

And while there is no pull to the left within the Democratic party of similar import to the tea party movement, Blanche Lincoln can tell you that there is a strong pull to the left.  Today, Lincoln may very well lose the Arkansas Democratic Senate primary to a more-liberal challenger, Lt. Governor Bill Halter.  West Virginia Democratic Congressman Alan Mollohan has already lost his primary race.  And Arlen Specter's fate is also to be decided in a Pennsylvania primary today.

So I think that there will be a lot of unemployed, experienced centrists of both parties looking for something to do in January.  And I see a golden opportunity to bring together the moderate castaways from both the Republican and Democratic parties into one, moderate centrist party.  I call it the Competent Party.

Now, the Competent Party would not seek a majority in the House or the Senate.  They would just seek enough seats to function as swing votes so that neither the radical right or the radical left could move legislation forward without appeasing the middle.

How could we start the Competent Party right here in New Jersey?  In my painting, we would get Bill Bradley and Thomas Kean, Sr. together in a room and ask them to start appealing to the rational middle of the State.  Such respected public figures, not running for election, can speak to the chaos that will ensue should Governor Christie get his no-new-taxes squash-the-unions starve-the-schools budget approved.

What's the worst that could happen?

Eliminating The Middle-Men

Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan, our country has been steadily moving to the right. Sometimes it's a jump, like the 1994 Contract With America.  Sometimes it's a shuffle, like when Bill Clinton changed our country's welfare system in response to the success of the Contract With America.

But right now, the move to the right is like a tsunami, and it's swallowing moderate Republicans and incumbents in both parties.  The move to the right is becoming a phenomenon no one person can control.  Outside interest groups are spending more money in this election cycle than they did in 2008.

On one level, this can be seen as an inside-the-beltway power struggle being fought by proxy.  Senator Jim DeMint is trying to unseat minority leader Mitch McConnell by riding a wave of populist anger fanned by the  tea party candidates DeMint is supporting across the country.  Think Charlie Christ versus Marco Rubio in Florida.  And it's the McConnell allies that seems to be losing the battle right now, as evidenced by the primary loss of three term Utah senator Robert Bennett.

But the tea party is leaving chaos in its wake.  For example, tea party activists attending the Maine Republican convention re-wrote the party platform to call for laissez-faire economic policies and the elimination of both the Federal Reserve Bank and the Department of Education.  Olympia Snowe, who recognizes that she's a Republican in a blue state, now has to choose between running to the right and alienating most of the State or staying in the center and thus antagonizing her own party.  Snowe has suggested that the Republican party will have to decide whether it wants to be a diverse majority party or a far right minority party consisting of tea party faithful.

So what does this mean for New Jersey?  It's clear that Governor Christie is playing to the tea party, with his talk of taking back our State and legislating from the bench.  And it has also become clear to me that the Governor has absolutely no interest in meeting Democrats in the middle -- this year, the middle is no-man's land.  The Governor is going to run as far right as he can, so that he can ride the tea party wave as far as it can take him.  And if that leaves New Jersey in a state of chaos, so be it.

And then it hits me.  In Maine, the tea party activists are calling for the elimination of the Federal Department of Education.  In New Jersey, the Governor is proposing to send tax dollars to private schools at the expense of failing public schools.  And I've been wondering, what will happen to the already failing public schools when they start losing money and students?  The answer is, they will stop failing and simply fail.

That's the design.  Governor Christie may not be calling for the end of the Department of Education, but he is clearly taking steps to end public education in New Jersey's urban areas.  The plan is to reduce property taxes by privatizing urban schools, where the lion's share of the State's property taxes go.  The goal is to create chaos in urban areas that will be seen as opportunities for business (to be exploited with corporate income tax deductions and other corporate welfare), because in Chris Christie's New Jersey children are not just our future, they are our future profit centers.

So, to our State's Democrats in the Senate and House, please recognize that there is no point in appeasing this Governor.  Resist the urge to join the Governor in his mission to willfully dismantle the public education system.  No more Munichs!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Legislating From The Bench Revisited

Just read a very interesting piece on the New Jersey Supreme Court at NJ Spotlight, a really good website for Jersey news.

Anyhoo, an article by John Mooney suggests that Governor Christie's concern is not gay marriage, but Abbott v. Burke, the New Jersey Supreme Court decision that requires the state to tax rich suburbs and send the money into urban school districts.  So, sacking Justice Wallace was really about getting someone on the court who will vote to undo Abbott v. Burke, not about sending a message on gay marriage (although I'm sure the gay marriage issue was a welcome bonus).

That makes sense.  The Governor wants to send 24,000 students from failing urban public schools to private schools, thus diverting State funds from public schools to private schools.  He wants to break the back of the NJEA by capping raises and giving municipalities a stronger hand in union negotiations.  And now he wants to undue the obligation that the State tax wealthy suburbs to finance urban schools.

So everything is of a piece, designed to lower the tax burden on wealthy towns and people by undermining the ability of public employees and urban public schools to continue to command more and more of the State's resources.

What we are witnessing is a complete re-organizing of the State along radical right lines.  The single-mindedness of this Governor would be impressive if it wasn't so frightening.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Public School Protest vs. Private School Rally

A few weeks ago, public school students across New Jersey walked out of their classrooms in protest of Governor Christie's reduction in school aid.  In response, the Governor was widely reported as saying the student should not have left the classroom, but should have protested after school; and he accused the teachers' union of aiding and abetting the student walk-out.

Today, private school students rallied in Trenton to show support for the Governor's school voucher bill.  These students were bused in by their schools and accompanied by their teachers.  I can't wait for the Governor's rebuke of these private schools and their teachers.

What I can't understand is, why are these private school students rallying?  Current private school students aren't eligible for vouchers -- only students in failing public schools can enter a lottery for a voucher.  Are these students that anxious to have classmates from Newark and Camden?  My guess is that the kids got to get out of school today and so they would pretty much rally for anything.

There are a lot more sad and cynical points to be made here, but they pretty much make themselves.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Public Employee Unions: The Gay Families of 2010

I've been reading press coverage of Governor Christie's proposal to resolve the property tax crisis in New Jersey.  In case you don't know, New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country, primarily because New Jersey's public schools are funded through property taxes.

So, the Governor wants to mandate a cap on property tax increases at 2.5% a year, unless voters in a given municipality approve a higher budget.  And in order to sell that as a reasonable proposition, the Governor wants to give local governments a "tool kit" to help keep local costs down.  The tool kit consists primarily of the ability to bust unions.  For example, the state will cap pay raises (including wages, benefits, vacation time and other perks) for public employees at 2.5% a year, and allow any local government to opt out of civil service laws.

"People in New Jersey now feel as if there has become two classes of people in New Jersey:  Public employees who receive rich benefits, and those who pay for them," says the Governor.

In so doing, once again the Governor is aligning himself with Republicans nationally.  Writes the Wall Street Journal:

"Today's Democratic Party default is always higher taxes.  Dominated by government-employee unions, they refuse to rethink government spending despite the steep recession.  Last year six states raised income tax rates, and this year another five are attempting to do so.  That didn't work so well in 2008 or 2009 in Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey or Wisconsin -- states that still have budget holes even after trying to soak the rich."

New Jersey Senate Democrats approve of the concept of the "tool box," although not necessarily this particular assortment of tools.  Senate President Stephen Sweeney says that he also favors civil service reform, but that the 2.5% cap goes too far.  According to Sweeney, wealthier towns will regularly vote to exceed the cap, while middle class and poor towns will not.  Meaning that there will be an even greater gap between the haves and the have-nots.

So the Republican Governor presents a "we"-"they" with "we" being taxpayers and "they" being public employees.  And the Democratic Senate President presents a "we"-"they" where the "they" are the rich towns and the "we" are the poor and middle-class towns, but still lending credence to the concept that public employee unions are the problem.  But since most public employees don't live in wealthy towns, Sweeney, the highest ranking Democrat in the State of New Jersey, is simultaneously labeling public employees as both "we" and "they".  And I bet he sits up at night wondering how we got a Republican governor in this State.

Now, I have my issues with the NJEA and other public employee unions.  I do believe that the world has changed in the last 30-40 years and that, much like the auto workers union before them, the public employees unions are going to have to become part of the solution.  But I don't they they are the puppet masters of the Democratic Party and I don't think we can balance our budget on the backs of teachers, police officers and firemen.

And then it hits me.  In 2004, 2006 and 2008, gay families were the culprit.  Liberals were pulling the strings of the Democratic Party and pushing an agenda of gay rights that would destroy the American family.  A vote for George Bush or John McCain or the Republican of your choice was a vote for the American family.  When Joe Biden refused to support gay marriage in the Vice Presidential debate I decided I was voting for the Green Party candidate (whoever it was).

Public employee unions are the gay families of 2010.  The Republicans say they are the problem; the Democrats won't support the unions and so the Republicans get to frame the debate.  So we're not talking about sending corporate income taxes to private schools or reducing taxes on millionaires; we're not talking about how the Governor is pushing a right wing agenda on a largely Democratic state and using the financial hardship of taxpayers as political cover; we're just continuing the attack on the middle class by making it harder for public employees to remain part of the middle class.

So my advice to the public unions?  Lay low and ride this storm out.  I would bet that Chris Christie and his tea party fans are a passing fad, and that in 2012 the Democratic Party will need the unions again.  And that will be the time for constructive discussion.  But to come to the table now is to allow tea party Republicans to set the agenda, and that means that meaningful compromise will be impossible.

And then I would tell them to start advocating for gay marriage rights for its members.  Really, at this point it the unions have nothing to lose by doing it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Christie Karma

Scant days after Governor Christie chose to remove Justice John Wallace from the State Supreme Court for legislating from the bench, a three judge panel of the Appellate Division has moved to stop the Governor from legislating from his office.

Labor unions are no friend to Republican Chris Christie; businesses are.  And while a 2004 campaign finance reform law restricted the ability of companies which do business with the State to make campaign contributions, unions face no such restrictions.  So, almost immediately upon taking office (January 20, 2010), the Governor signed an Executive Order expanding the law to place the same campaign finance restrictions on unions as it does on companies doing business with the State.

But the Appellate Division has ruled that the only governmental body which can amend a law is the body that enacted the law -- the legislature.

Reportedly, the Governor's office had no comment on whether or not it would appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court.  But I sure hope there is an appeal, and then I want to be a fly on the wall in the Supreme Court when the Justices, in unison, wag their fingers at the State attorney and say "Nyah nyah Nyah nyah NYAH nyah!"

Taking Our Country Back

In an unprecedented move, Governor Chris Christie has declined to grant sitting Supreme Court Justice John Wallace a second term. The Governor feels the Supreme Court has been legislating from the bench, and that allowing Justice Wallace to return to the court for an additional 22 months of a second term (the maximum time the Justice could serve) would not do anything to curb the excesses of the Court.

Within New Jersey, the Governor has few public defenders of his decision to end the career of Wallace, the only African-American member of the Court.   But as the Governor has said, he is not interested in popularity and does not care if he is a one-term Governor.

And then it hits me.  Christie really does not care whether or not the people who put him in office approve of his job performance.  Is it possible, then, that Christie really sees the bully pulpit of the Governorship as nothing more than a vehicle to promote himself for even higher office?  All of his decisions -- slashing the state budget, cutting public services, seeking to institute school voucher programs, granting corporations tax breaks -- can be interpreted as attempts to attract attention from outside of New Jersey as much as, if not more than, an attempt to effect change in New Jersey.

Compare if you will the activities of Governor Christie with those of Tim Pawlenty, the Governor of Minnesota who is widely regarded as a front-runner for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination.  Like Governor Christie, Governor Pawlenty is seeking to close a daunting budget gap entirely through spending cuts.  Like Governor Christie, Governor Pawlenty is having a tiff with the Supreme Court in his State.  Governor Christie is molding his image along clearly defined conservative parameters.

When asked, Governor Christie can't name a single instance of the Supreme Court legislating from the bench.  But I can.  The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that the State cannot discriminate against same-sex couples.  Truth be told, anytime I hear someone talk about legislating from the bench these days it generally has something to do with gay people.  So, connecting a few dots here, Governor Christie is giving a shout out  to conservatives that he opposes courts that favor gay rights.

And then there's the speech the Governor gave on the night he was elected, during which  Christie repeatedly swore to take back New Jersey.  I can't help but notice that the tea party movement of the Republican Party wants to take back our country from it's first black President, and Governor Christie is taking back the Supreme Court from its only black justice.  These dots pretty much connect themselves.

And so, it seems that for the next 4 years, at least, blue New Jersey is about to become a testing ground for every conservative Republican/ tea party idea for government.  Because unless I miss my guess, Governor Christie is betting that Barack Obama is a 1 term President and that there is a spot for Christie in a future Republican administration -- maybe Vice President, maybe Attorney General.

Kind of makes you miss Jim McGreevey, doesn't it?

Quotes Of Note: The Oil Spill

1. Amid calls to establish new regulatory, safety and technical requirements for off-shore drilling, Jack Gerard, President of the American Petroleum Institute said "What's most important is that we get the facts before we move. We should not legislate in a vacuum based on speculation."

Mr. Gerard, the last time I checked there were 5,000 barrels of oil a day spilling into your vacuum. The only speculation going on here is by oil companies, which bet that the economic risk of cutting corners on safety would be offset by the value of the oil found.

The point, Mr. Gerard, is that oil companies should get the facts before they drill, because they are not drilling in a vacuum.

2. BP PLC Chief Executive Tony Hayward has accepted full responsibility for cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Texas and has said that BP will honor all legitimate claims for damages. Says BP spokesman Andrew Gowers, "When disasters like this occur, corporations can make things worse by appearing dilatory, obfuscatory or legalistic in their response."

Mr. Gowers, using words like "dilatory," "obfuscatory" and "legalistic" is the best way to make a company appear dilatory, obfuscatory and legalistic. But I have a question.

Mr. Hayward says BP will pay all "legitimate" claims. The lawyer in me senses some wiggle room.

Currently, BP's liability under law for damages from the spill are capped at $75 million. Efforts are being made to increase that cap to $10 billion. But why? If BP is going to pay all legitimate claims, why worry about the cap? Unless any damages claims in excess of $75 million in the aggregate will be deemed illegitimate by Mr. Hayward.

Or Maybe Mr. Hayward is just reserving his right to allow BPs corporate lawyers to force anyone seeking damages to engage on costly litigation in order to prove their claim is legitimate, forcing devastated business owners to weigh the cost of litigation against the damages sought.

From where I sit, neither Mr. Hayward or Mr. Gerard are doing a whole lot to improve the image of BP PLC. Why not just say "My bad, I'll clean it up, just send me the bill"? That's something everyone can understand.