Archive: August, 2009
Pest-control experts gathered for a recent conference at Rutgers and staged a race between two Madagascar hissing cockroaches representing Gov. Corzine and his Republican challenger, Christopher J. Christie.
It was an apt metaphor. Christie’s campaign is based on the notion that, given his prosecutorial background, he can rid Trenton of corruption. The Corzine team has responded by publicizing a catalog of Christie’s ethical miscues. There’s been enough mutual denigration to make it seem like a two-roach race.
But when it comes to actually dealing with that resilient species of vermin known as New Jersey corruption, the candidates’ approaches are strikingly similar or only incrementally different.
On key points, the ethics proposals of both Christie and independent candidate Chris Daggett are similar to Corzine’s positions over the past four years. And in many cases it’s the Legislature that will continue to define the limits of reform, regardless of who is governor.
One of the state’s long-standing ethics issues, for example, is the awarding of government contracts to campaign contributors, known as pay-to-play. Christie vows to expand restrictions on it to towns, counties, and unions.
But most of the pay-to-play loopholes that a governor could close unilaterally were taken care of by Corzine through executive orders last fall. The governor also proposed bills extending the law to the local level and restricting cash transfers among campaign funds, but they stalled in the Legislature.
Both Christie and Daggett also promise to outlaw the holding of more than one elective office, another issue that’s been on the ethics agenda for years. But Corzine took the same position, and helped bring about the state’s first law against the practice, two years ago.
An exception to the ban, for those already holding two offices as of February 2008, was imposed by the Legislature, which included close to a score of members also serving as local elected officials. The gubernatorial challengers promise to finish the job by doing away with the grandfather clause, but it’s not clear how that would get past lawmakers — or how much effort it would be worth, given that the practice is already headed toward extinction.
Christie promises to go further by barring elected officials from full-time appointed government jobs as well. It’s a worthwhile proposal to deal with a widespread problem.
However, many of the positions that should be addressed are part-time or contractual — legislators who work as town attorneys, for instance. Moreover, Corzine’s experience casts doubt on the legislative prospects of further limits on double-dipping.
The most encouraging aspect of the debate is that public pressure has made reform a largely uncontroversial matter in New Jersey, at least among high-profile, statewide candidates. But it will take even more of a groundswell — and more than a governor — to keep reform and the roaches moving.
From Inquirer Editorial Page Editor Harold Jackson:
Heidi Ramirez, who recently resigned from the state's School Reform Commission that oversees Philadelphia public schools, has been getting the heroine treatment for putting up a good fight. But a different image comes to my mind when I think about what Ramirez has done. Remember the old TV show Branded starring Chuck Connors? It always began with the Army painting a yellow streak down his uniform back for cowardice.
Read more here.
Mayor Nutter went to Harrisburg seeking help to balance the city budget and came home with what looks like an even better deal for Philadelphia residents.
After some wrangling and delay, the state Senate approved Nutter’s request to raise the sales tax in the city by 14 percent for five years, and defer payments to its pension fund for two years.
If approved by the full legislature, the measures will enable the city to fill a projected budget gap of $700 million over five years. Nutter said both measures were needed to avoid major layoffs and deep service cuts.
Nutter and City Council must keep their promise to make the sales-tax hike temporary. Sales taxes are the most regressive levy, impacting poor people more than other taxpayers, and adding to an overall tax burden in the city that is already the highest in the country.
With wages flat or falling, and other costs growing for Philadelphians, Nutter should have looked harder for more cuts before turning to any tax hike. Even with this assist from the state, he needs to implement more efficiencies in city government.
Credit Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) for using Philadelphia’s budget crisis to come up with a long-term solution to the city’s growing pension costs, instead of another a short-term patch.
In addition to the measures sought by Nutter, the Senate bill calls for the city to cap retirement benefits for existing city workers at current levels, and develop a separate pension plan for new hires that would cut benefit costs by 20 percent or more.
The House approved an earlier version, but must sign off on these provisions from the Senate. Gov. Rendell supports the Senate bill; the House should as well.
In the long run, this should help ease Philadelphia’s budget woes by addressing an intractable pension problem that previous mayors have sometimes tried but almost always failed to tackle. In taking office last year, Nutter pointed to the ballooning pensions costs as a growing crisis.
He has been negotiating with the four municipal unions for pension changes, but with little success. The unions obviously don’t want to grant any concessions. But the reality is the city workers have a gold-plated pension plan that is unsustainable.
Without cutting employee costs, the other alternatives are to eliminate city jobs, cut services or the more likely route: keep raising taxes. Such moves will only make the city a less attractive place to live, work and visit.
About 60 percent of the city’s $4 billion annual budget goes to cover salaries, health benefits and pension costs for employees. (Health benefits are another soaring cost that Nutter wants and needs to reduce.)
The city’s annual payment to the pension fund has jumped from $150 million in 2003 to $350 million last year. Meanwhile, employee pension contributions equaling 5 percent of their salary are below the rate of most other cities. At the same time, the city has more retirees collecting pensions (about 37,000) than city employees (about 28,000).
Under the state plan, city workers will keep their current pension benefits. The savings will come from future hires that will go into a 401(k) plans rather than the existing guaranteed plan.
That seems both fair and reasonable given the economic realities that confront Philadelphia.
Philadelphia schools should move quickly to fix flaws in the expulsion process of its zero-tolerance discipline policy.
Update: Delaware sports betting limited by federal court.
Update: The gaming board Friday took the easy way out - "a step backwards," was Mayor Nutter's apt description - by telling Foxwoods it's South Philly or nothing. Holding their noses at Young Philly Politics, with good reason.
The long-running melodrama surrounding the Foxwoods Casino proposal to build a slots parlor in Philadelphia may be coming to a turning point - or to the point of no return.
Gov. Rendell wasted little time in naming a Republican powerbroker to replace Heidi Ramirez, who resigned last week from the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.
President Obama's decision to let Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. set an independent course to determine whether anti-torture laws were broken by the CIA or its contractors is less than satisfying.
While it allows the nation's chief law enforcement officer to prosecute specific alleged crimes, it may not answer who was ultimately responsible for the actions of minions. It bears repeating that a bipartisan truth commission that grants immunity to witnesses may be the best way to set the historical record straight so that the sordid past won't be repeated.
Finally removing the wraps Monday from a 2004 report on abuses at overseas CIA prisons, officials revealed that operatives had repeatedly choked one prisoner, made threats against family members, staged mock executions, and put a gun and a power drill to the head of another prisoner.