Thursday, June 24, 2010

Budget Nuggets

I’ve come across two interesting facts while reviewing the compromise budget now working its way through the State legislature.

First, the Governor has agreed to refrain from cutting the budget of the State Commission of Investigation.

According to the web site for the SCI:

"The State Commission of Investigation was established in 1968 as an independent fact-finding agency. Its mission is to identify and investigate organized crime, corruption and waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayers' dollars. The SCI is required by law to pursue these investigations beyond the sphere of political influence or favoritism. The law also requires the SCI's findings to be made public through written reports and/or public hearings."

The Governor had wanted to merge the SCI with the State Comptroller, the only government watchdog working under the jurisdiction of the executive branch. The Governor had also wanted to merge the Inspector General and the Medicaid Inspector General with the State Comptroller, effectively bringing all of the State’s investigative powers under one roof – his roof.

None of this should be surprising to those who have followed Chris Christie’s career. As a Federal prosecutor, Chris Christie served as an advisor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. Christie was privy to, if not actively involved in, the politicization of the Justice Department. In fact, in the final months of the 2006 campaign, US Attorney Christie brought an indictment against an anti-poverty agency with ties to Senator Robert Menendez, who was in a tight re-election campaign against Tom Kean, Jr. To date, that investigation remains open, although no charges have been brought.

So the concept of the Governor holding the purse strings of the State’s investigative powers, and controlling the paychecks of the investigators, was disconcerting, at best. This is a Governor who believes in using any and all means available, even means arguably not within his powers, to push forward his personal agenda.

But, for now, SCI is safe. And that’s a good thing.

The second fact to emerge from the compromise budget is that New Jersey Network, the public television station in New Jersey, will lose its State funding after December.

NJN serves a unique function. As New Jersey falls within both the Philadelphia and New York media markets, a great deal of the public broadcast programming available is geared to those states. NJN has a nightly newscast and weekly public events shows, as well as other programming, all geared towards events in New Jersey.

Currently, the State owns NJN. The idea of spinning off NJN into a private not-for-profit corporation is not a new one. In fact, it was originally proposed in 2008 by the people who run NJN. They seem to think that NJN will do better as a stand-alone entity.

Details remain to be worked out as to how the spin-off will occur. The State owns the physical assets of NJN, including broadcasting equipment. And there certainly is a scramble on to find alternative financing in the 6 months or so before the State stops providing funds.

But now more than ever, it is important that New Jersey have an independent media outlet focused on New Jersey stories. Otherwise, it would not be long before this Governor found a way to use NJN to advance his own agenda.

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