So, now that there is a somewhat nebulous bill to perhaps briefly extend the life of NJN, I have been approached numerous times  by people who say, “did you hear??!!” Six more months!!! Alright!!!!”

Forgive me, for failing to share their enthusiasm. But the fact that a possible six month reprieve engenders such excitement gives you a sense of how far the terms of this debate have shifted.

I say “possible” because the legislation to figure out NJN doesn’t technically include a funding source. Money will have to be moved around elsewhere  in order to keep this place alive.

As I have noted several times, the model here is outdated and needs to be changed. However, a transition that insures some kind of continuity would be ideal. Unfortunately, the lack of certainty has left people who work here confused and scared and that makes getting the product on the air more and more difficult each day. That is a sad state of affairs for a group of people who have devoted so much time and energy to the State’s New Jersey Network, which ultimately belongs to the people.

But there is another angle here which is worth noting. The legislators seem inclined to go along with a rapid transition, once the interested parties can figure out the new structure. They should be very cautious here. NJN covers the Legislature like a glove. There is tremendous value in that. Our coverage is comprehensive and fair. The individual bills and causes that are pushed by members may fall off sharply when NJN changes. That goes for both Republicans and Democrats.

Our Governor has often been described as a “rock star.” There is a lot of truth in that. He is able to get exposure elsewhere, including at his series of Town Hall Meetings…highlights of which are cleverly uploaded to youtube. This basically bypasses the local media by going straight to the people. The world of communications allows that today, and the Governor’s press shop has proven very adept at capitalizing on it.

Legislators with smaller bully pulpits still need local media to get exposure. And that is something to consider when the plans for NJN start to emerge.

After all, you never give away the store without at least getting a fair price.

The “Kind” You Like

It’s all coming back to me now. In my younger days, people used to call really potent marijuana “kind bud.” And the stuff that someone bought quickly on a lark was simply known as “commercial weed” or “schwag.” In the debate over marijuana potency in New Jersey “schwag” has also been referred to as “dirt weed.”

Ok, glad that is clear. The recent agreement between Governor Christie and Democratic Assemblyman Reed Gusciora will keep the THC content in medical marijuana at 10%. “Good stuff” is usually 18% THC, I am told. So that means people who need medicinal marijuana will have to smoke a lot more schwag to reap the benefits of the drug. THC btw, is the psychotropic chemical that gives marijuana it’s kick. That means helping to relieve pain and suffering in chronically ill patients. It is the same ingredient that produces a “high” for college students. That “high” can best be described as euphoria, followed by a deep paranoia in which the smoker is 100% convinced that Federal Agents ( not the local police mind you, but Federal Agents! ) are about to bust in the door and haul you off to jail. That soon morphs into boredom, followed by an overwhelming desire to drink a beer, smoke a cigarette and finally order Dominoes.

Or, you know – so I’ve heard.

But getting back to the issue at hand, if patients are required to smoke a lot – oh wait, they can’t because all recipients of the drug are limited to 2 ounces a month. Hmmmm. So that means, that patients might be smoking and smoking, but not enough to ease their suffering. Critics also say that you don’t want to encourage people to smoke more of anything. Marijuana may not be as bad for your lungs as tobacco, but it’s probably still not something that people should smoke a lot of…if they can avoid it.

Anyway, such are the thoughts of Democrats who feel they may have to go ahead with the Resolution scrapping the Med Marijuana rules anyway since there was no broad agreement on some of these other points. Wait, did I only give you one point? Right. Short term memory loss, dude.

Another issue is that it would still be illegal to distribute the drug in school zones which would render most cities off-limits as distribution centers. That might wind up discriminating against certain individuals who may need or want the marijuana just as much as folks in the suburbs. After all, someone who is ailing often can’t travel that far.

Senator Nick Scutari was noticeably absent at the Gusciora-Christie announcement last Friday. Scutari says he never heard from the Administration about signing onto the agreement. Christie meantime, says he didn’t want to wait around for the Union Dem to play political games. I’m not sure who is right, since I don’t have full access to private phone records and text messages ( although I feel like I have been spending some time looking at those elsewhere lately ).

What is notable is that as of Monday, Gusciora and Scutari still hadn’t spoken after working so closely together to get this bill passed last year.

Whatever. “The Big Lebowski” is coming on in ten minutes and all will be forgotten.

Turn Off The Dark

I must confess the situation at NJN continues to both frighten and fascinate me. On the one hand, I feel like I am in an episode of  “Tyler Perry Presents: The End of My Career,” on the other hand the Reporter in me is riveted by what might happen next.

With funding due to run dry here by the first of the year, our Stockton Street Headquarters is fast becoming a morbid place to work. We have heard very little about what the plan is for this place. The Legislature jointly owns the licenses with the Executive Branch giving them equal say over how to proceed. As I have noted numerous times, that is not a system I am particularly comfortable with, but one whose rules I must obey.

Here is where we are. Contingency plans are being made to wind this place down. We have heard from both branches that no one wants to see this place “go dark.” Well, that doesn’t mean keep us around exactly either. People here have been told to pull “evergreen” shows. That means shows that are not timely and could conceivably run on a loop should we all be laid off and two or three people remain employed here to run tapes of re-runs just to keep a presence on the air.

I really wonder if the elite political class who run this state would allow the latter scenario to transpire. NJN has covered that group with intense determination and most importantly – deep respect – for almost forty years. The process of high impact decision making for New Jersey and governing this State is the people’s business and it deserves the level of coverage NJN has always provided.

The decision makers over those years have been captured in the NJN video archives. And starting this week, we have begun reaching into the vault to air some of that footage that you will literally not find anywhere else.

NJN’s old archive tapes are located at a warehouse in  West Trenton. NJN News Managing Editor and Anchor Jim Hooker has been making trips there to pull some of this historic video and film. NJN of course has been capturing New Jersey history all of these years, and that archive ( which belongs to the people btw ) is a treasure that should not be overlooked, no matter what our fate.

We will be airing nightly segments on our evening newscast through the month of December. Check it out.

The Sure Thing

The completely underrated Mid-80’s classic involved a a cross country road trip for John Cusack. He is going to visit his friend Anthony Edwards on the West Coast who will introduce him to a college co-ed who is described as a “sure thing.” And by “introduced” they mean much more than that, but I’ll spare you the specifics ( this a family friendly blog after all! ).

The point of the movie and the roundabout way I will tie it to State House politics is this: there is no such thing as a sure thing. It is never as simple as someone makes it sound.

Last week, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver announced a deal on arbitration reform. When I say “deal” it was pretty much a deal amongst Democrats and their constituent groups since the Governor had no part of it, and subsequently reminded us of that at his own presser shortly thereafter. ( The Governor teed off on the Democrats for failing to enact the tool kit…although I might be one of the few people who thinks that they are actually not that far apart on the substance of arbitration reform. But that is for another day. )

At the same announcement, Sweeney indicated they are “very close” on civil service reform. That being the other “big game”  that needs to be successfully hunted and speared to finish the tool kit.

But one Democrat tells me that you simply cannot take away seniority. If that is the case, civil service reform won’t save all that much $. Roughly a third of all municipalaties have civil service. That is it. And if you can’t fire the guy who makes $95,000 for pushing paper ( slowly ), because he has 25 more years than the young go-getter who actually cares about his job, the argument for civil service as a catch-all for savings weakens.

This Democrat says seniority is basically a “property right.” What that means and how far courts would be willing to go to protect it remain to be seen. We are in unprecendented economic times, and many of these issues take us into into unchartered legal territory ( although the court tends to be liberal which works against those who want to challenge some of these basic assumptions now ).

Here is what we do know. Section 11A:8-1 of the civil service statute requires layoffs to occur “in inverse order of seniority.” That is the law. It could be changed by the legislature, but as we just noted that would likely be challenged in court…and any good lawyer will tell you that you never want to end up in court if you can avoid it. ( Wow. Did I just endorse back-room deals?? )

So, could civil service reform be useful without eliminating seniority? Sure it could. The 4000 to 5000 state government titles could be streamlined ( I mean, there are supposedly 17 titles for tree cutters ! ).

In fact, almost all of these tool kit items make for better government, and should be enacted. But will they actually reduce costs for towns? Some would argue that is less than a sure thing.

Iceberg, Dead Ahead

In the late 1960’s Governor Richard Hughes decided to do something once and for all about the media blackout in New Jersey. With Philly and New York paying scant attention to New Jersey issues and politics, Hughes helped create what is today New Jersey Network.

It was both a terrific and a flawed idea. On the one hand, New Jersey needs its own source of news and information. And having the profit motive taken out of the equation allowed NJN to focus on issues and substance rather than fluff and entertainment ( yes, even then people cared about celebrities although when they read glossy magazines I’m not sure they bothered to dog-ear the pages just to make sure they don’t miss anything as I’ve seen people do today with US Weekly and other mags ).

But there were also some mistakes which can be clearly understood now with the benefit of hindsight. To begin with the future of communications was all television back then. No one could predict how much that would change. Television isn’t going anywhere, but it’s impact as the dominant medium is clearly being diluted.

Moreover, by the State taking on the role of TV station, then failing to adapt as the media environment did, NJN was left languishing in some 1960’s vision of what the “media” is. So a fair argument can be made that New Jersey should never have gotten into the television biz to begin with.

But here is the problem: it did. And for the last 40 years, NJN has been almost fully funded by the State. So, when a decision was made to end that relationship, there were plenty of people who said ‘good idea.’ But to go from 40 years of State aid to zero State aid in a matter of six months has left some supporters of this station slightly puzzled about how that can work. Funding runs out here on January 1 which as you might imagine has created a bit of a panic within the building.

But lemme go back to the operative phrase hidden in my last paragraph about State support for 40 years, then going cold turkey ( get it? “turkey”…Thanksgiving. Duh ) in six months. Government systems are not designed to move quickly. Our Constitutional Republic form of Government which is replicated by the states is programmed to move deliberately and methodically. They were set up that way for a reason. It is my opinion that people are somewhat conservative by nature and don’t like huge changes from their government in short periods of time.

Like it or not…NJN is a branch of State Government, and the truth is, I have some problems with that. And I have also had some frustrations on a professional level working within that system. But as the bloated Titanic of this network heads for the metaphoric iceberg just understand that if the boat sinks, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

95% of all Public TV stations get some public funding, according to The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I’m all for making NJN one of the stations that doesn’t. But the current structure here may need a little more time to make that transition which is what the bi-partisan NJN Legislative Task Force concluded.

In the movie “Citizen Kane” the newspaper magnate helped drive his own sales because of a high public profile that made news. But in real life, journalists never wanna become the story.

Well, the story lately is NJN which has put me in the awkward position of covering my colleagues and myself…including the issuance of layoff notices earlier this week. ( btw – our “pink slips” weren’t actually pink. That’s fascinating )

Administration officials and others tell me that they believe the best option is a takeover by WNET, Channel 13 in New York with Steve Adubato Jr. attached to the deal who would presumably oversee the content and ensure that the New Jersey-centric mandate continues. But here is the Governor’s number one stipulation – no more state funding. That means 130 employees will need to come off the state rolls.

basically, it all comes down to money. Without a stable source of funding, it’s going to be hard to make this work. Thirteen has it’s own financial issues. In fact ( as has been reported in this space ), Thirteen gets a grant from the State of New York each year. Last year it was $8.7 million. People in New York seem to have no problem with that. And it would put New Jersey in the odd position of no longer being subsidized by the taxpayers of New Jersey, but  subsidized instead partially by the taxpayers of New York? Hmmm. that sorta undermines the whole idea of having an independent media outlet that is not dominated by New York or Philly which is why NJN was set up in the first place.

Here is the bottom line: the world has changed. When I was growing up I thought the “the future” was gonna mean flying cars and Summer homes on the Moon. In fact, the major technological leaps have been in the field of communications rather than aviation. In other words, the media landscape has shifted dramatically from what it was 40 years ago when NJN was born. We need a new model for NJN. No question about it.

So can the Thirteen thing work? I am open minded, if not necessarily confident. Montclair State University is another possibility. They have expressed an interest in taking us over. But an Administration official tells me that does not comport with the Governor’s mandate to get us outta the state system.

The dynamic is as follows: When Democrats opted not to fight to restore funding for NJN for the full fiscal year it meant the dollars drying up January 1. So that puts them in a weaker negotiating position now on NJN than the Governor.  As one Democrat told me, they fear Christie will say to them it’s either this Thirteen plan or I’ll let it go dark. The Legislators can write a supplemental to keep us alive for a few more months…but Christie can simply veto that. And the front office folks say they are not extending a lifeline without a solid plan. See where this is headed?

I hope something gets figured out. Not only for personal reasons but because the NJN brand has been loyal to New Jersey for 40 years. It’s time for New Jersey to show some loyalty right back and keep the station alive, albeit in a  different incarnation.

Got You In My Seitz

Dr. LeRoy Seitz, The Parsippany-Troy Hills Schools Superintendent who Governor Christie singled out last week as “the new poster boy for all that’s wrong with a public school system that is being dictated by greed” is suddenly in the middle of a ‘point-counterpoint’ reminiscent of the Schundler fiasco.

On November 9, the school board voted on a five-year contract that would give Seitz more than Governor Christie’s proposed salary cap in each of those next five years. The cap ( which tops out Superintendent salaries at $175,000 per year ) was first proposed last July, but would not take effect until February at the earliest. Three public hearings are needed first.

The County Superindent, Kathleeen Serafino, who needs to sign off on the Seitz contract claims she never did so. calls to her office were referred to the State DOE which says there is no clear approval of that contract in writing. That appears to be true. No final go-ahead letter was ever received by the school board.

But people familiar with the situation say  something doesn’t quite add up here. They insist that a “good faith negotiation” took place over several weeks and not once did Serafino or her Chief Negotiator Ralph Goodwin ever object to a salary that exceeded the proposed cap. In fact, the Superintendent ( who serves as the Christie Admin’s rep in the Seitz contract negotiation ) never even brought up the salary until a tersely worded letter popped up on DOE’s website yesterday saying the contract needs to be rescinded.

Apparently there is a trail of email correspondence leading up to the vote. Now, I have not seen these emails, but someone familiar with them read me their contents. On October 27 for example, two weeks before the board vote, Seitz asked if there would be a problem with his contract being approved on November 9th. Serafino responded “thanks, and good luck.”

On the 29th, an email from Goodwin said Serafino would approve the contract in writing when she returned from vacation which was after the vote. But how could she not have known that the vote was scheduled for November 9th? From what people involved in the negotiations say, the official approval was merely a formality. Another email from Goodwin on November 3 also did not raise any concern about the terms of the salary.

Finally, at least one source claims there was a face-to-face meeting on October 26th between Seitz, Serafino and others where Serafino said she could not sign off on a flat rate salary of $225,000 per year for five years, but she could approve 2% yearly increases. Seitz is currently making $212,000.

So, if there was a problem, there appears to be evidence that no one involved in the negotiations said a word about it until after the Governor made his comments.

As far as I know, people may be feeding me falsehoods. I suppose we can wait and see what those emails say when they are publicly released. ( And they will eventually be made public )

The Blind Side

The criticism of Governor Christie has often been that he has tendency shoot first and ask questions later. Or as one State House veteran put it, ‘The Governor likes to begin a conversation by tossing a hand grenade into the room.’

There is something to be said for this as a negotiating tactic, but there are also potential pratfalls. Critics say the situation with LeRoy Seitz appears to be one of those.

On two consecutive days the Governor went after Seitz personally for his recent re-up on his Schools Superintendent contract in Parsippany-Troy Hills. The guy already makes more than 210, and by the last year of his five year new deal he’ll be making more than $230,000. That is indeed a lot of money.  But there are plenty of government positions that pull in big $’s. Anyway, not the point.

Here is what is interesting…school officials say they never received a single phone call from anyone connected to the Governor telling them to dial it back. In other words, there was no back channel attempt to prevent the contract from being approved. Instead, after a months long negotiation process the Governor decided to single Seitz out in a public forum on the day of the vote.

Moreover, we were recently told that Kathleen Serafino, the County Superintendent signed off on the contract. She is answerable to the Administration. The County Supes are representatives of the Department of Education which is located in the Executive Branch of Government.

Christie first announced in July that there would be caps on these salaries. The policy is winding it’s way through and could be implemented by February ( Legislature not needed on this one, although some were surprised at the way the Governor described the necessary public hearings to get this done…as if public hearings are for sissies ).

Finally, there is the Mendham connection. The Mendham Township School Board re-upped Superintendent Kristopher Harrison’s contract back in September. It also exceeds the cap. Then the Mendham School Board President tells the Daily Record that they approved it knowing that a cap was imminent ( !!! ). Wow. Mendham is of course Christie’s home town, and officials there were spared a public lashing.

Essex Connection Rises Again

Is it take 3, or take 4 now on women’s health funding? I have sorta lost count. Christie knocked $7.5 million for women’s health funding outta the budget, and Dems ( particularly women legislators ) have been trying to get it restored ever since. They have gotten no help from their women counter-parts in the Republican caucus.

Well, now it appears as though the coalition is fraying in the Dem caucus as well. After the last override, advocates decided on a new approach. they would move some money around, but split the bills in two. One bill would restore the state’s portion, the other would once again go after federal matching funds that would otherwise be lost.

Senator Weinberg signed on for the first bill, and she approached Senators Ruiz and Gill for the second one. Both lawmakers agreed to sponsor it and had their names attached to it…until yesterday when they were mysteriously withdrawn.

So, what is going on here? I have sought the reason, but have not gotten it, which has left others to speculate. Some believe that once again we are seeing the Joe D-Essex County influence here. By now, the closeness of Gill and Ruiz to the Essex machine in terms of gainful employment have been well documented. We also know about the strong alliance between those Essex Dems and Christie. Could this be an attempt by the Governor to snub this issue out once and for all?

Possibly. And while it may not prevent a vote, the Governor can certainly flex his muscle and make sure that his allies in Essex don’t help the process along. Both bills are supposed to go before committee Monday.

Is this all idle speculation??? Enquiring Minds Want to Know!!!

Programming Note: Remember those National Enquirer ads? Ah, those were the early days before magazine tabloids came to be mandatory poolside reading for the younger set.

Incense and Peppermints

So, it has been many years since I have heard people devoting this much time to talking about Marijuana. Of course when I hear it now at the State House it is in a very different context.

What to do about those Med Marijuana Regs. By statute, New Jersey needs to implement the law that passed in the lame-duck session before Christie took office. But it is the Christie Administration that is now charged with building New Jersey’s program.

Advocates for patients and supporters of the bill say the Department of Health and Senior Services has made the regulations too restrictive. For example, by insisting on a low THC content in the drug, forcing Physicians to wait two years before adding new ailments as eligible for treatment and having doctors verify that all other means of treatment have been exhausted before writing a script for medicinal pot. And don’t even get me started on the whole flap about the number of distribution centers ( dude, it’s like totally overwhelming!!! ).

So, clearly there are some who believe this is Christie himself being a bit of a Difficult-A-Saurus Rex ( which is not to be confused with Puff The Magic Dragon. He-he ).

The Dems will pass a resolution putting the regs under review. The Admin then has 30 days to re-write them. If they refuse, the legislature can invalidate the rules. Does anyone see where this is headed? Yep. You guessed it…Court, which probably suits the Christie Administration just fine.

Programming Note: “Incense and Peppermints” is that ridiculous late 60″s song by that even more ridiculously named group “Strawberry Alarm Clock.” Oddly enough, the lead singer, Ed King eventually left the group and joined Lynyrd Skynyrd, which couldn’t more exemplify southern ( non-psychedelic ) 70’s rock. Those crazy musicians!!!