Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Unitary Executive Of New Jersey Strikes Again

So Chris Christie is offering to restore the $139 million in discretionary aid to urban areas he cut from the Democratic budget. With one caveat -- the Governor gets to oversee how the money is spent.

The Governor's stated rationale is that the discretionary aid has been used by Democratic party bosses as a piggy bank. But when you look at the Governor's pattern of behavior, another reason emerges.

This Governor has publicly stated that the State Constitution gives him a lot of power, and he intends to use all of it. And the way Chris Christie uses his power is as any fundraiser would (Christie is a fundraiser at heart).

Any power the Governor gets will be used to punish those who cross him and reward those who support him. How vindictive is the Governor? He used a line item veto to cut $100,000 from a Rutgers intern program because the program was run, in part, by the Rutgers professor who chose the Democratic redistricting map over the Republican plan.

So when the Governor says he wants oversight on how urban areas spend their discretionary aid, he is really saying that he is looking for power to punish those in urban areas who cross him and reward those in urban areas who support him.

At least the Governor is consistent.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Budget Of Retribution

I recently heard Sen. Buono describe the Governor's line item veto of some $900 million from the state budget as a retribution by budget.

I thought it an interesting perspective. Most of the so-called news coverage I have heard about the Governor's line item veto focused on women, children and AIDS patients. Certainly, these are the areas where Democrats will seek to override the Governor's veto. While I could understand (while disagreeing with) the Governor's decision that there was not enough money in the budget for these safety net social services, I would not say the Governor was trying to get back at women, children and AIDS patients.

What did occur to me was the huge amount of discretionary funding for urban areas that the Governor cut. Here, I could see retribution. The State Supreme Court ordered the Governor to send $500 million to urban areas to adequately fund schools. The Governor then responded by reducing State aid to urban areas by $140 million. This particular cut was labeled "vindictive" by Sheila Oliver and by Bonnie Watson-Coleman.

On the one hand, the Governor is catering to his base, wealthy suburbs which feel that too many of their tax dollars are sent to urban areas. On the other hand, the Governor was simply continuing to act as the unitary executive of New Jersey. The Supreme Court says to send more money? He just goes around the Supreme Court.

I think that the Sen. Buono, when using the word "retribution," has hit on a potentially powerful criticism of the Governor. Using the power of one's office to seek retribution against political enemies and taxpayers is not one of the qualities most people look for in a President. At least Nixon had the good sense to use intermediaries, for all the good it did him.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Quick Note On AIDS Patients

New Jersey has about 35,000 people living with AIDS. In 2010, about 7,645 people received AIDS medications, as well as medications for AIDS related health issues, under the State ADAP, or AIDS Drug Assistance Program. About half of those people are African-American and about a quarter are Latinos. The 2010 budget cut about 950 of those people from the ADAP plan by lowering the income eligibility for the program from 5 times the Federal poverty rate to 3 times the Federal poverty rate.

Then the Governor announced that, by negotiating additional drug rebates with pharmaceutical companies, those 950 people would continue to get their AIDS drugs free from the State. Of course, they would no longer receive free drugs for AIDS related medical conditions.

In the 2011 budget, the Democratic legislature tried to restore those 950 people to the ADAP program, thus restoring their right to receive free drugs for AIDS related medical conditions in addition to their AIDS meds. Since the 950 were already getting their AIDS meds free, this was a modest budget proposal. In 2009, the State spent $8.7 million in ADAP funds for people making 4 and 5 times the poverty level; the additional rebates from pharmaceutical companies must have reduced this figure dramatically.

However, despite the nominal cost of the program, the change did not escape the Governor's line item veto. So, for another year, the largely black and latino AIDS population making 4-5 times the poverty level -- i.e., between $32,500 and $55,150 -- will not be getting free medication for AIDS related illnesses.

Insert millionaires' tax joke here.

The Helicopter Flap and the Missed Point

By now we've all heard about CopterGate; Chris Christie taking a State helicopter from Trenton to his son's baseball game, and then taking the copter back to Trenton to meet with a delegation from Iowa trying to get the Governor to jump into the Presidential Race. Since neither trip was for State purposes, critics cried foul.

Practically speaking, this should have been a non-event. The helicopters have to fly a certain amount of hours for training, so they would have been in the air anyway. And, reportedly, Christie uses the helicopter much less frequently than did his immediate Democratic predecessors.

But this is not a practical issue. This is an exercise in branding.

There are three legs to the Republican Party, the fiscal conservatives, the social conservatives and the small government advocates. Christie is a favorite of all three legs -- not only has he cut the budget and laid off government workers, he has also defunded all women's health centers because three provided abortions and has come out against gay marriage (no pun intended).

Truth be told, there are fiscal conservatives and small government advocates outside of the Republican party. Like me, for instance. The biggest reason I'm not a member of the Republican party is because I cannot join forces with the social conservative wing of the party.

So any chance Christie opponents can get to either (i) play up Christie's social conservative values, making him unattractive to independents like me, or (ii) attack Christie's bona fide credentials as a fiscal conservative or a small government advocate, making him less attractive to all of his fans, they are going to jump. This is in addition to efforts such as Loretta Weinberg's repeatedly making the Governor veto bills for women's health centers, and the Democrats repeatedly making the Governor veto a millionaire's tax, because they want to make the Governor unattractive to women and blue collar workers, i.e., Democrats.

The attention to the Governor's helicopter trip was an attempt to reach into the Governor's own base and show him to be a big government guy, taking advantage of his perks as Governor while causing middle class pain.

And this does strike at a weak spot of the Governor. As a U.S. Attorney, Christie was repeatedly cited for staying at hotels more luxurious and expensive than other Attorneys General, i.e., repeatedly taking expensive perks for himself and his staff on the public dime.

But Christie opponents continue to miss the biggest chink in the Governor's Republican bona fides, which is his continued expansion of the State's Executive Branch. Christie has repeatedly said he will use his power as Governor to the full extent of his Consitutional powers. He has sacked a State Supreme Court Justice for purely political reasons, an unprecedented step; he has taken over various independent watchdog agencies; he has taken over Atlantic City; he sought to limit the amounts municipalities can choose to pay their school superintendents, expanding State power; and he fired the Newark School Superintendent for no reason other than he wanted to to make room for Michelle Rhee, who ultimately turned down the job. These are not the actions of a small government advocate, yet no one has successfully connected the dots to call the Governor on his expansion of State power.

So tilt at helicopters if you will, but at least notice the big stuff.

State Commission of Investigation in Chris Christie's Pocket

What with the death of public media in New Jersey and all, I thought it was time to fire up the blog again.

Prior to Chris Christie's taking office, New Jersey had three independent watchdog agencies -- the Inspector General, the Medicaid Inspector General and the State Commission of Investigation. Last year, as a budget cutting move, the Inspector General and the Medicaid Inspector General were merged with the State Comptroller, bringing both into the Executive Branch and under the control of Chris Christie.

Christie also wanted to merge the State Commission of Investigation into the Comptroller's Office. However, the SCI is under the jurisdiction of the Legislature; and there was great outcry from both Democrats and Republicans, currently in office and retired, against merging the agency. So the Governer relented.

In late March of this year, however, Governor Christie announced that U.S. Attorney Patrick Degnan had been named Executive Director of SCI for the next three years. Degnan, like anyone who has ever worked for Christie, knows that if Degnan ever crosses Christie, not only will Christie never again promote him but Degnan will be on Chris Christie's hit list. Think Joan Verplank at the Chamber of Commerce.

How exactly did Chris Christie get his man in charge at the State Commission of Investigation? Members of SCI are appointed by the Governor, the President of the New Jersey Senate and the Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly. Which means Steve Sweeney and Sheila Oliver agreed placed the SCI under the control of a former U.S. Attorney approved by Chris Christie.

One wonders the full parameters of THAT deal.