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Archive for the ‘Stephen Sweeney’ Category

As the pace at the State House slows to a trickle, there is an interesting side story about Ray Lesniak’s COAH bill, S-1.

S-1 abolishes COAH. But it also does a lot more including a requirement that 10% of new development be set aside for low and moderate income housing. Of course that has modifications and loopholes that housing advocates say render the 10% figure useless…but that’s a whole other debate which is way too complicated for me to tackle in this post.

Here is what S-1 also does: eliminates a 2.5% fee on commercial development. Right now, there is a moratorium on that fee but it’s set to expire July 1. Well, The Senate with Lesniak’s prodding, already passed S-1. The assembly has not. And from what I am told they will not before the end of the fiscal year. Housing and Local Government Committee Chairman Assemblyman Jerry Green told me last week that their offices got flooded with calls protesting S-1…especially since critics were not allowed to testify during the Senate Committee hearings. Green has promised a slower more deliberative process in the lower house…in other words he is in no hurry to pass the bill to meet Lesniak and Governor Christie’s timeline ( yes, btw – the Governor also wants S-1 passed ASAP ).

Green and others say the votes simply are not yet there in the Assembly. And they are proposing a separate piece of legislation to extend the moratorium on the fee. But Senator Sweeney told me Thursday that is a non-starter. He says the Assembly needs to pass S-1. There will be no extension.

Reached by telephone Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski ( who is hoping a development project in Sayreville goes forward this Summer without the fee ) said about trying to force a vote on S-1 in the Assembly, “This is the philosophy of Governor Christie, and I am not sure we should be embracing that. It doesn’t make for good government.”

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In the early 1990’s while I was attending college there was this mass hysteria over political correctness. ( Ah, don’t we long for those halcyon days when the biggest problem facing this country was how to refer to people’s differences without offending them?!? That sounds very much like a quaint pre-9/11, pre-Katrina, pre-financial meltdown and pre-Gulf disaster world to have lived in, doesn’t it? )

You had people on the right denouncing the left for acting like the language police. And you had people on the left arguing that insensitivity leads to intolerance ( I know, I know…I just rolled my eyes when I read what I just wrote in that last sentence too ).

Political correctness quickly ran amok. But at the same time, the point was fairly made that people need to watch what they say.

The Senate has now passed, and an Assembly panel has now cleared, a Sweeney bill that would cut out demeaning terms  for people with disabilities from state law. That includes “retarded,” “mental retardation,” “feeble minded” and even “idiot.”

I think it is fair to say that these terms have no basis in the law of this state. They are indeed offensive and demeaning. The first way to dehumanize someone is to cut them down with degrading language. Moreover, words like “retarded” are simply not acceptable anymore. The same way terms like “homosexual,” “midget” and “oriental” are antiquated to the point of being offensive when used in modern parlance ( although I did recently have to quietly remind an elderly relative that one of those aforementioned terms from that second grouping is indeed unacceptable after she decided to scream it out loud in the middle of a crowded restaurant ).

It’s hard to teach people new habits. You just gotta keep reinforcing the point. It reminds me of my father’s famous refrain in reference to me and my brother while growing up which was: “It is never an inappropriate time. To remind my children. To lower their voices.”

If you gotta keep reminding people to say something the right way or act appropriately, then do it. The English language is evolving. And Sometimes government does need to set an example.

And yes, the title of this post is an homage to William Safire with whom I may have had the shortest conversation in modern history. I dialed him up at work years ago to ask if he would speak at our graduation, and he simply said “no.” End of conversation.

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In Albany ( which is highly dysfunctional ) the budget process often comes down to “three men in a room.” The Assembly Speaker, Senate Majority Leader and the Governor all get together and bang out a deal, then the members simply vote for it.

Well, here in New Jersey the process is a bit more inclusive. One might even argue too inclusive. The budget is crafted after everyone gets their say which seems like a fairer way to go about it. But this year might be different. I am hearing that Senate President Steve Sweeney is working closely with Christie to craft a deal. Many legislators have now told me that there have been limited conversations with them about what the budget will look like. That could mean that nothing is happening, or it could mean the two leaders are horse trading behind closed doors. I tend to believe the latter. It sounds like Sweeney is quietly getting some of the restorations he wants while ultimately going along with some of the Governor’s big proposals.

So, “two men in a room” could wind up making this deal happen. That’s of course not to be confused the with atrocious 1991 Elton John tribute album “Two Rooms” which celebrated the unique musical collaboration of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. I never really understood why that was such a big deal…I mean one guy does the writing, the other guy puts it to music. Who cares??? I remember everyone making such a big deal about that “magical collaboration” back when the album first came out. And I am not just launching into an irrational tirade because Elton John makes me want crash the car into railing…although I think we can all agree that “The Lion King” soundtrack was a bit much.

Anyway, not to drift too far off topic – two men in a room may very well determine what this budget looks like. And solid evidence of that includes that Sweeney and Christie seem to be the only two guys who insist there will be no government shutdown. Clearly, they know something we all don’t.

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It’s that time of the year again. The New Jersey Press Association presents the Legislative Correspondent’s Club annual show.

Basically, the state’s  ( now dwindling ) press corps performs a series of skits and songs that mock the political and media elite of the Garden State. It is often quite funny replete with costumes, wigs and other flamboyant accessories that would make even Elton John blush.

As for my role…well, I am El Presidente this year. That means I don’t actually have to sing ( which is not my strong suit ). I have to deliver the introductory speech which is supposed to be funny and slightly mean spirited. Well, I don’t know how funny it shall be, although I’m working on it. It will most certainly be biting, and of course familiar.

Then of course, after the show is over, people get to stand around and hang out in a cocktail party-type atmosphere which is even more fun. And the whole evening is off the record. So, if you are remotely interested, I urge you to purchase tickets. Proceeds go to charity.

Contact Peg Stephan 609-406-0600 ext. 14. or pastephan@njpa.org

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It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, but in the end the pension reforms passed…but without a key element.

The provision allowing public employees to pay into a 401-k style plan ( also known as the “opt-out” ) went down in an amendment. It was this sticking point that led to a standstill on the floor of the Assembly Monday when Democrats emerged from caucus confident that the entire bill (S-2) would be held.

What followed was a series of closed door meetings amongst the leadership and the Governor. It’s funny because my life covering politics is actually a series of meetings behind closed doors that i am not allowed to attend. It’s kinda like the velvet rope clubs of my youth. But in this case, I am never on the list. So, we try and piece together what transpires after the fact.

here is what I can discern. The Governor and Sweeney appear to have reached an agreement early on for these reforms. Christie agreed to let Sweeney take most of the credit. And he should. Sweeney championed these reforms four years ago, but didn’t have a partner in the Governor’s office who would sign off on them. Now he does. So when the state’s top Democrat started hearing that there were some defections among the Assembly Dems, he started trying to roundup the votes. I’m told that Joe D of Essex County for example, had promised to deliver votes for the reforms that weren’t panning out.

Well, On Monday afternoon those closed door meetings began. And it finally took Speaker Oliver and Majority Leader Cryan meeting with Sweeney to get the Senate prez to agree to remove the opt-out. Sweeney seemed to view this thing as his baby, and didn’t want it changed. But the Assembly ain’t his house. And what is emerging here is a bit of a class divide. Dems see the Assembly as the last bastion of the people’s will. The opt-out is the only provision that is truly ideological. It endorses the view that maybe the idea of guaranteed government provided pensions is old and stale and needs to be phased out. And that troubled D’s who told me they were not prepared to allow it. Democrats believe in pensions and protecting working people. In fact, even some Republicans were troubled by the actuaries on the opt-out. In effect, they feared it would chip away at the health of an already troubled system and numbers suggesting otherwise were not all that clear.

So, a lot of political capital has now been spent. It was a more bruising battle than some had anticipated. You might even see Assembly Dems push back by forcing their Authorities reform on the Senate as they believe pensions were rammed down their throats a bit. Authorities targets more upper income people which brings us back to the class issue.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon has introduced a bill that eliminates the 9% pension enhancement going forward ( something the Gov also wants ), but I’m told the Dems will need the bad taste in their mouths to dissolve a bit before they will even consider that.

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Stereotypes can be very degrading. But they often hold a grain of truth, which is what makes them ( in some cases ) so uproariously funny.

For example, a wine lover has been depicted as a merlot sippin’, turtleneck wearing, upscale beatnik who is as strident in his liberal views as the right wingers he criticizes.

Not really fair. Most people can appreciate a good bottle of wine, even if we prefer spirits or beer ( I’ll actually drink pretty much anything you put in front of me, as long as it doesn’t get served in a ceramic skull, or have an umbrella in it. I gotta draw the line somewhere ).

Anyway, there is a bill that would make “the most significant change to Title 33 since prohibition.” Basically, it would cut out wholesalers in some cases and allow people to purchase out of state wine. Let’s say you stumble on a  great vineyard while touring Napa. Previously, you were not allowed to ship a case to your New Jersey home. If this bill passes, you could. In addition, New Jersey’s 53 wineries would also be able to ship out of state.

Sounds like a win-win, right? Ah, if only it were that simple. Wholesalers say this is the 5th largest market for booze in the country, and it would hurt them if this law were changed. They have gone so far as to call this “reverse discrimination.”

However, Senate President Sweeney is so in favor of this bill that I’m told he threatened Nic Sacco ( Transportation ) and John Girgenti ( Law & Public Safety ) with the loss of their chairmanships if they don’t help move it. btw – Both these guys are already on thin ice for backing Codey in the leadership fight ( see earlier posts ).

Anyway, critics say this will enable liquor to more easily make its way into the hands of minors. So, the “law enforcement guys” are against it. While it cleared Law & Public Safety in the Senate ( with apparently – a little arm-twisting ), it was moved out of the the same committee on the Assembly side since Gordon Johnson ( a “law enforcement guy”…see earlier paragraph ) is against it. You gotta love the Democrats, right? If the vote isn’t gonna go their way, all they need to do is change the venue. Anyway, the companion wine bill will now be heard by Regulatory Oversight and Gaming. The chairman of that committee, John Burzichelli, is a co-sponsor.

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I love saying “pension bomb.” Not only does it take a somewhat wonky issue and make it sound cool, but it’s also a pretty accurate way to sum up what’s happening.

Here is the very un-sexy fact about solving this problem: none of the current leaders will likely be in power to reap the rewards if bold action is taken now. It took years for the problem to balloon into a full fledged crisis and it could take a generation for the ship to right itself.

Which is why you gotta give Senate President Stephen Sweeney some credit. This is the sacred cow of working folks and it’s tough to take them on publicly even if many people are on your side.

The climate has actually gotten so murky that I am told the NJEA is considering running ads to pre-empt the upcoming budget season which could conceivably place teachers in the cross-hairs.

But some have also chimed in that the reforms don’t go far enough. In other words if we are going to choose this point in time to diffuse the bomb, we might as well really take the shrapnel out of it.

One of the proposals is to extend the retirement calculation from three years to five. That will produce savings, no doubt. But the real savings would come from taking on local police and fire unions that only use their last year of service to calculate their pension. Very often, that final year can be loaded up with OT. So, big savings would accumulate if that was extended from one to three. But somehow, I can’t really see top Dems taking on first responders in the post-9/11 environment which we were reminded over Christmas – still very much exists.

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It’s like one of those movies…just when you think the protagonist has escaped danger, a new threat emerges. Sometimes, the danger is not “new” at all, but just the same old threat which never really went away.

For weeks, “uncertainty about its fate” has been the easiest way to describe gay marriage legislation. As the obituaries were being written yet again this week, Senate President Dick Codey announces that he will post the bill for a full Senate vote on January 7th.

What has changed since the bill’s chief sponsors asked the Senate not to vote on it last month because there weren’t enough votes to get it passed? It’s hard to say. Perhaps nothing. Although incoming Senate President Stephen Sweeney left the door slightly ajar when Claire Heininger of the Star-Ledger and I grabbed him after Dana Redd’s swearing in ceremony Tuesday afternoon in Camden.

Sweeney  ( who had been on stage for roughly two hours during the Redd ceremony ) seemed slightly caught off guard when we told him that Codey had made the announcement via press release slightly after 2 pm. He did however, refer to gay marriage as a “civil rights issue,” but declined to say how he would vote. Opponents of the bill once seemed pretty sure that Sweeney was in their camp…and perhaps he still is. Sweeney went on to say that many Democrats are struggling with this one. true dat.

Codey, does not seem real intent on easing that suffering. His surprise announcement puts a lot of conservative Democrats in a position they were hoping not to be in. This, as the progressive wing of the party threatens to unseat them for voting “no.”

Coupla points here…first of all, the right wing of the Republican party has been playing this game for years. Particularly at the national level. It’s not that they vote Democrat when they don’t get what they want, it’s that they either support a primary challenger or simply don’t vote on election day. In fact, it was the conservative wing of the party here in NJ that  pressured Repubs who who were leaning towards voting for gay marriage. But the left wing of the Dem party often seems less inclined to play that kind of hard ball. They are threatening to do so now, and it sounds like they are serious. Can they muster enough strength to force some hands? That remains to be seen in the next few election cycles.

Also coming into play here is the Sweeney-Codey struggle from this past Fall ( see earlier posts ).

Finally, There was another fairly significant development in the last few days. 120 clergy members from across the state representing 19 different faiths and denominations sent a letter to Codey, Roberts and Corzine urging a vote on gay marriage. Among the signatories was Chuck Rush, Corzine’s personal pastor  from Summit.

Religious leaders – notably Catholic Bishops and Hasidic Rabbis have come out strongly against gay marriage. But it’s now at least a toss up over whether more clergy support this bill than oppose it here in NJ.

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There are about a half dozen bills out there that would establish “prevailing wage” for contractors who receive government money.

One applies to BPU projects which cleared the Assembly labor Cmt. Monday, another involves food service at schools. Basically they impose a wage of roughly $15 an hour which is more than double the state’s minimum.

The bills are largely symbolic since they don’t apply to that much work, but what is interesting here ( like always ) is the politics. To begin with, opposition to this bill was relatively muted from some of the key organizations charged with protecting NJ’s business interests. The backdoor reason is that some of these prevailing wage bills, which are being pushed by the unions, are sponsored by incoming Senate President Stephen Sweeney. And as many insiders put it today, since the bills are gonna pass anyway, they don’t need to go on record vigorously opposing the new prez. At least not this early they don’t.

But I also spoke to a developer who said this issue is emblematic of the tone deafness of the Corzine Administration. They just don’t get it. They have made the business environment here so cost prohibitive that companies are either packing up and leaving or not coming here to begin with.

In fact, according to this developer states like Massachusetts and New York ( normally regarded as pro-union and quite liberal ) are actually better business environments. So when NJ passes a prevailing wage bill, while it may not do much, it just kinda sends the wrong message and winds up costing jobs.

Obviously unions and Democarts disagree…arguing that it’s an issue of fairness and a rising tide lifts all boats.

The other bill I’d like to mention is A4271. This legislation would tie the hands of the incoming Governor when it comes to US Senate appointments to vacant seats. Since New Jersey has two Democratic Senators, one of whom is 85, the new bill would force Christie ( a Republican ) to make an appointment within 30 days, and that appointment must be from the party of the Senator who is leaving the seat.

As Of course this is a hypothetical scenario. But as we know, Dems have a 60-seat filibuster proof majority in the US Senate and they are about pass a health care overhaul which is largely unpopular in the Republican party. Thus if something were to happen to either Menendez or Lautenberg, Christie would not be able to disrupt the current national balance.

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There are 17 Republicans in the state senate, and it takes 21 votes to become Senate President. Republicans have said on the record that they will be voting unanimously as a bloc come January. But it’s what Repubs and insiders are willing to entertain privately that’s even more interesting.

Apparently, last week the Codey camp did reach out to Republican leader Tom Kean about a power sharing arrangement that would retain Codey as Prez. On the table were committee chairmanships ( not co-chairmanships but full chairs ) of about half the Senate’s committees. One insider said it would actually be more like a 60-40 split favoring the Dems.

Republicans are entertaining the offer. Of course they are…why wouldn’t they??!! But insiders say there is some resistance to getting into bed with Codey. Years of being in the minority under his reign have been tough and painful for the Repubs, and even left a bitter taste that some will not soon forget. There is even some distrust about whether Codey would uphold his end of the bargain.

That said, this is not about making friends. It’s about the Republicans doing what they can to ensure that some of their legislative priorities get addressed.

There is also some disagreement ( i know, shocker ) within the Republican party about how to proceed in this tricky environment. Some of the older guys ( who have memories of the way we were ) are angling to make a deal, even if it’s with Codey that would once again return them to the table. Some of the younger guys, particularly those who joined the club in 2007, are a bit more wary of making such a deal, but are certainly willing to entertain the possibility.

So, here is the really radical proposal. What if the Democrats can’t get it together. Meaning a handful of  Senators are unhappy enough at the chasm within their own party that they are willing to throw the chamber to a bi-partisan split. that means a consensus candidate could emerge along the lines of Tom Kean.

Obviously, this is not a likely scenario, but you have some very powerful forces within the Democratic party pulling people from both ends. Kean ( assuming he were ready to deal ) might look like a sane alternative. Remember…if the Repubs can deliver a unified 17 votes, that could be the difference. It’s possible that not even Sweeney could deliver that many.

So, could Kean step in and fill the void?? That would be something, wouldn’t it?

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