Friday, July 31, 2015

Poor Acting

For the past two years, New Jersey has not had an Attorney General. John Hoffman was elevated to the post of Acting Attorney General when Governor Christie appointed Jeff Chiesa to the United States Senate to fill the seat of Frank Lautenberg.
The Attorney General is supposed to be the people's top government attorney, not the governor's. The Governor has his own chief counsel whose office is in the same State House suite as Christie's.

Government is based on checks and balances, and in New Jersey the Senate vets the governor's nominee for AG. But Christie has circumvented the state constitution by leaving Hoffman in the acting position for far too long.

Hoffman's lack of concern for the people he is supposed to be working for is exemplified by his stubborn defense of the Exxon Mobil giveaway settlement. Instead of defending the governor's blunder, he should be advocating for the people and the environment in New Jersey.

In many states, the people elect the Attorney General. But that's not the solution to our problem. With money rather than principle being the prime factor in our electoral process, an elected AG would turn into an auction, with the job going to the highest bidder.

Governor Christie should obey the letter and the spirit of the state constitution and submit a nominee to the state senate for vetting. Whether it's Hoffman or someone else, the nominee would receive a hearing and be questioned by both parties. Public input would also be part of the process. That's the way the system is supposed to work.  At least that's how it should work for a chief executive who respects the constitution and the rule of law.

originally posted on BlueJersey.com

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Too Big to Sue?

After the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection proposed an eight-billion dollar lawsuit based on Exxon's despoiling of numerous sites in New Jersey, the Christie administration is pushing through a $225 million settlement - less than three cents on the dollar - ending any future remediation or consideration for Exxon's pollution.

Today, Assemblyman John McKeon, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, held a hearing to gather facts to try to determine if this settlement is in the best interests of the public.

While such a low cash settlement without much public discussion may seem odd, it makes sense if you look at it through the lens of Governor Christie's political aspirations. Settling for the low number now, and channeling most of that money into the general fund,  provides Christie with another one-shot gimmick to enable him to boast of a balanced budget, even though that goal is constitutionally required. Waiting for prolonged litigation to force Exxon to pay its fair share would not help Christie, who will be long out of office by the time the lawsuits are settled.

Most of the key players in the Exxon giveaway were invited to provide comments. Exxon declined. Acting Attorney General John Hoffman declined. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin declined. While all gave as a reason the pending lawsuit, the Christie administration's actions in most issues like this have never been transparent.

As Assembly McKeon pointed out, not only has the proposed monetary award been drastically reduced, but many more polluted properties have been added to the settlement. Some of this information is just coming out right now, and with only a month left in the public comment period, that is a concern.

Further clouding the issue is Governor Christie's repeated grandiloquence at his taxpayer-funded political rallies stating that Exxon will pay every penny that is required to clean up the sites. As with most of Christie's pronouncements, there is a grain of truth here, but only a grain in a silo-full of problems. What Christie ignores is what the lawyers call Natural Resource Damages (NRDs). It's one thing for Exxon to put a layer of dirt on top of a polluted site, but NRD settlements compensate citizens and the state for damages to wetlands, wildlife, and water tables that are caused by the polluters, and requires a more robust (and expensive) cleanup. Otherwise, another hurricane or other disaster could breech inadequate protection, and environmental problems are back. Assemblyman McKeon pointed out that under Governor Corzine, there were 150 NRD settlements - under Christie only one.

Carrying the (somewhat polluted) water for the Christie administration at the hearing was Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi. She started off with an incredulous rhetorical questions - why are we (the legislature) trying to second-guess the work of the experts in the DEP involved in the settlement? She and her Republican colleague, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, repeatedly referred to other drawn-out lawsuits involving Exxon and wondered if holding out for a better settlement for the taxpayers over the longer term was the correct strategy.

Settling for this relative small sum not only is detrimental to future generations in New Jersey, but as Assemblyman McKeon points out, it sets a bad precedent for bad actors in the future.

Photo: From today's hearing (L to R) Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, OLS Staffer Miriam Bavati, Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair John McKeon

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What if the NRA ran the DMV?

The Economist just published a report stating that this year, more young people will die from guns than will die from car accidents. Just as the Constitution requires guns to be “well-regulated”, operating an automobile must be regulated. This got me to thinking. What if the NRA ran the DMV?

First, as they work toward elimination of common-sense gun laws, the new NRA-run DMV would abolish the need to take a test and obtain a driver’s license. Anyone could simply jump in a car and drive away. But why limit it to cars? People who want to drive motorcycles, semi trucks, or tanks down I-95 could do it without restriction.

And what about those pesky traffic lights? A red light restricts a driver’s constitutional right to go from point A to point B, so traffic lights would be abolished, too. As would speed limits.

Insurance? Who needs liability insurance? If a reckless driver hits another car, it’s obviously not his fault. After all, the only thing that will stop a bad driver with a car is a good driver with a car.

Road rage prosecutions would be a thing of the past. If someone cuts you off at a highway exit, you have the right to “stand your ground” and ram his car, give him the finger, and shoot him.


So let’s save some money and abolish the DMV and give the NRA the task of regulating driving. After all, they do such a good job with guns.

Friday, December 5, 2014

We're not America Yet

Two hundred thirty-eight years ago, America was founded on the concept of liberty and equality. Of course, that was not strictly true because we still institutionalized slavery and women were treated as second-class citizens. But America is a work in progress. While we don’t have legal slavery today, we still have a long way to go toward equal rights for all races. While the Constitution was changed (less than 100 years ago) to guarantee women the right to vote, we still have a long way to go toward pay equality and a level playing field for women.

Over the past decade, a new rights struggle has taken center stage – equal rights for LGBT Americans. As reported in today’s New York Times, a group of Democratic legislators, along with LGBT activists, is working on a bill, akin to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to guarantee equal rights in all areas such as housing, insurance, marriage, employment, and other areas.

And why not? It’s a shame that the spirit of the Constitution has taken centuries to implement, and that we’re not done yet. And why now? As the Times article points out, “Any effort to create a new class of legally protected people … is likely to run into serious opposition from conservatives.” But the article points out that this legislation may take a decade or more to come to fruition. Social mores change. We now have marriage equality in a majority of states. Younger voters are more open to their LGBT peers. The entertainment industry is starting to portray LGBT Americans in roles that transcend their sexual orientation.

Four years ago, on this blog, I proposed a new Equal RightsAmendment that would guarantee equal rights for the LGBT community. Given the difficulty of even passing the original ERA, this new legislative solution is a better approach. Kudos to Senator Jeff Merkley, Representative David Cicilline, and others, as well as the thousands of activists who are pouring their hearts into this struggle.


Let’s not forget that the quest for equal rights for minority races and for women is not yet complete. But as we move forward, we also need to support equal rights for our LGBT fellow Americans.

Imagine

One of the iconic songs of my generation is John Lennon's "Imagine." The lyrics describe a world of people living in harmony, income equality, and peace. Of course, since the time that Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden, the world has never been that way. But that doesn't mean we can't strive for it, even incrementally.

So let's go on an imaginary ride through recent New Jersey history. Imagine if Chris Christie's priorities were to be the governor of all residents of the Garden State instead of being singularly focused on the White House and the wealthy donors who would help get him there. Imagine if Chris Christie was a moderate Republican, and how much better we would be if he were.

Along this journey, we'll meet a few Republicans who championed initiatives that benefited all Americans, and who would probably be shunned by the right-wing zealots who have taken over their party.

One of Christie's earliest actions as governor was to unilaterally cancel the much-needed ARC tunnel - a project that would ease the congestion of rail traffic to Manhattan and create tens of thousands of much-needed jobs as the state was starting to recover from the Great Recession. Compare that to the action of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who championed one of the most important initiatives of the 20th century - the Interstate Highway System. Eisenhower knew the value of a robust transportation infrastructure, and even though his motives included the rapid evacuation of cities in case of a nuclear war, he also knew that rapid movement of goods across the country was vital for economic growth.

Imagine if Christie had the same empathy for the gay community as Ted Olson does. Olson is hardly a "moderate", but the former Solicitor General under George W. Bush was a tireless fighter for marriage equality, challenging the mean-spirited California Proposition 8 in court.  Had Christie not been genuflecting to the religious right with his veto, we would have had marriage equality a lot earlier, not only benefiting hundreds of same-sex couples, but also providing a much-need boost to New Jersey's economy. If it weren't for his presidential ambitions, Christie would have followed the path travelled by his fellow Republicans Diane Allen and Jennifer Beck, and devout Christiecrat Brian Stack - all of whom voted for equality.

The next Republican we meet on our journey is Richard Nixon. While Christie and Nixon can compete equally when it comes to ethical lapses, at least Nixon understood the need for clean air and water. The former President created the Environmental Protection Agency - the same agency the current crop of Republican presidential wanabees promises to disband. Christie, on the other hand, consistently sides with his dirty energy patrons, pulling out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and putting roadblock after roadblock in front of job-creating renewable energy projects in New Jersey.

During his tenure, Christie has never been reluctant to spend money for his self-promotion, whether its his endless stream of YouTube videos or the extra 2013 election to keep his name off the same ballot as Cory Booker. Yet, he's consistently vetoed less-expensive initiatives that would upset his patrons but benefit New Jerseyans in areas such as women's health and legal aid to the poor.

Imagine a Republican "pro-business" governor who vaulted New Jersey to the top of the list of "business-friendly" states instead of the downhill descent of the past six years. Imagine a New Jersey with an employment rate better than that of neighboring states. Imagine a New Jersey that was a leader in the renewable energy of the future instead of the dirty energy of the past. New Jersey has had good governors and bad ones. Of both parties. But under Christie, we have lost many opportunities to move our state toward a better place for all of us. The 2017 election can't come soon enough as far as Drumthwacket is concerned.

"You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one."




Originally published at BlueJersey.com

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What's The Most Important Issue Facing America Today?

I started elementary school around the same time that Dwight Eisenhower took office for his first term as President of the United States. The world was a lot different then. But one thing defined the political dialogue – the threat of a massive thermonuclear war between America and the Soviet Union.

Of course, there were other things going on. The middle class was thriving, massive investments were made in infrastructure (from which we are still benefit today), and the wealthiest among us paid their fair share in taxes. The space race was on, and although the U.S. started from way behind, Neil Armstrong’s footstep across the finish line was a great triumph for America’s embrace of science and technology as well as for its public education system.

Yet, the shadow of a nuclear holocaust was the overriding issue, at least for my generation. We did the “duck and cover” exercises as if a half-inch thick wooden desk could protect us from fatal radiation. There were public fallout shelters everywhere, and the most zealous survivalists had elaborate shelters in their homes. The “Red Scare” embraced by Senator Joe McCarthy and those of his ilk ruined many innocent lives.

Eventually, the Cold War ended. Some progress has been made in reducing the threat of a nuclear holocaust, although the reduction in the number of warheads stockpiled by America and Russia is offset by the proliferation of nuclear capability in nations with even more unstable leadership.

So if nuclear annihilation is not the pressing issue in 2014, what is? What’s the single most urgent issue our leaders and citizens should be addressing?

Is it the destruction of the middle class? Is it the inequality still suffered by minority groups in America? Is it the industrialization of our education system? Is it the cost and scarcity of decent health care, where we lag just about every other industrialized country? Is it the fact that we always seem to have the money to go to war but never enough money to take care of the warriors?

All of these are important. But like it or not, the most important issue facing my grandson as he enters school this week is the environmental legacy my generation’s leaders leave behind.

Human beings are frail creatures. Without clean air and water, our life expectancy is dramatically reduced and our survival is in jeopardy. Our ecosystem is also fragile. The food and water we depend upon is profoundly influenced by a healthy system that has evolved over the millennia. Yet, over the past 150 years, we have raped the earth, dirtied our waters, and grudgingly made only miniscule progress against a problem that affects every person regardless of income, social status, or gender. We have powerful political leaders propped up by wealthy supporters who deny basic science and are willing to put all of us – their progeny as well as ours – in great peril. We sent a man to the moon because as a nation we had the will and commitment to do so. If we don’t manifest that commitment by the orders of magnitude that it would take to ensure the survival of our descendants, then all of the other problems we have with education, the economy, and equal rights are moot.

Let’s not ignore our environment when we go to the ballot box this November. Ask your candidates where they stand. Do they think there is no anthropogenic factor in the severity of storms like Sandy? Do they value oil company profits over clean air? Do they believe it’s okay to build pipelines through fragile ecosystems? Then don’t vote as if your life depended on it. Vote because your grandchildren’s lives and quality of life depend on it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Don't Run the Country Like a Business

In political campaigns, you often hear candidates promise that they will run the country like a business. To me, that’s almost a disqualifier.

I live in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District, and the two major party candidates are running for a seat being vacated by the retirement of a former NFL football player.

The Republican candidate is an insurance CEO (who lives 90 miles outside the district) and touts his business experience as a reason why the people of the district should send him to Washington. To me, being a successful businessman has about as much relevance as being an NFL offensive tackle when it comes to my vote.

As we see every day, the job of a lawmaker is to be persuasive and build consensus. While I’m sure some business people have these skills, most of the time businesspeople, especially CEOs, operate like a military unit where orders are given, followed, and are rarely questioned. That’s not how Congress works, especially for a freshman. Orders are not given, but rather compromise, consensus, and common ground are sought. These qualities are not often seen in the leadership of the business world.

Often, when candidates say they will run government like a business, they allude to handling money and finances smartly and operating at a profit. In fact, for most businesses, profit is the one and only criterion for making important decisions. That’s why we see so many businesses with low wages, offshore outsourcing, and flimsy quality controls. That’s not how Congress or the government should work. The government is not there to make a profit. It’s there to serve the people. And as far as prudent handling of money is concerned, especially in the financial services industry, there are companies like AIG and others that have demonstrated their leaders’ lack of good judgment or even ethics. Any prudence that is exhibited by these CEOs is primarily due to consumer protection laws and strict accounting standards, things business executives typically lobby to relax, not make stricter.

So if successful CEOs are not a priori good candidates for congressional office, who is?

My answer is those people who are successful leaders of volunteer charitable organizations.

Their success is based on persuasion – the ability to make a case for others to part with their money or time. They do this not for compensation, but because they want the country to be a better place. These are qualities we need in members of Congress.

We’re fortunate here in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District to have such a candidate running on the Democratic ticket. Aimee Belgard is a defense attorney by profession, but has spent most of her adult life as a volunteer executive for the American Cancer Society. She has raised funds for medical research and patient care. Certainly this has required persuasion skills, persistence, and the ability to show people what’s in it for them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such qualities could be brought to the House of Representatives?

Belgard has also demonstrated these skills as an elected official in her role as a member of the county board of Freeholders. As one of only two Democrats on a five-member board, she has shown her ability to work with the GOP majority, strive for common ground, and make significant accomplishments. In fact, her GOP counterparts have given her the ultimate complement – they have taken credit for several of the programs that Belgard has initiated.


So be wary when a candidate tells you he’ll run the country like a business. That’s like an NFL tackle telling you he’ll remove your spleen. It can be done, but there are unpleasant consequences.