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.