Category: Clips

Handlin comments as SCI convenes to hear testimony

Source: CNN -

The New Jersey bridge scandal re-enters the spotlight Tuesday as a key witness testifies for the first time about a controversy that has roiled Chris Christie’s administration.

A state legislative committee, which has been investigating orchestrated traffic jams around the George Washington Bridge last year, will hear from Christina Renna. She’s an aide who worked under the governor’s ex-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly.

Kelly, a key figure in the controversy, was fired in January following the disclosure of a now-infamous email – “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” – from her to another Christie appointee at the center of the mess.

Renna is the first of five people subpoenaed by the special legislative committee to testify under oath about the roles played by high-profile figures in the scandal.

The legislative panel and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey are investigating the gridlock, which was triggered by the closure of access lanes to the nation’s busiest bridge over several days in September.

Investigators want to know whether top officials abused their authority and, if so, were they trying to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not backing Christie, a Republican, for reelection.

Renna, who’s testifying under subpoena, reported to Kelly and worked closely with her in the intergovernmental affairs office. She left her job earlier this year as the bridge scandal began to make national headlines.

While there is speculation that some Republican members of the Democratic-led committee may not participate in the hearing, Republican Assemblywoman Amy Handlin said she plans to attend. Though she expressed frustration at the investigation.

Amy Handlin

“So far we’ve spent three quarters of a million dollars and we don’t have anything to show for it,” she told CNN.

Handlin doesn’t expect Renna to drop any bombshells because she doesn’t believe Renna was privy to the planning or execution of the Fort Lee lane closures.

In documents made public last month as part of the Christie internal review Renna, 33, described her relationship with Kelly. She said the two would occasionally grab a drink after work but they did not socialize outside of the office. Their friendship started to wane after Renna got married in July 2012, according to the report.

She said Kelly and David Wildstein, the former Christie-appointed Port Authority executive caught up with Kelly in the lane-closure fiasco were “exceptionally close,” according to memos from Renna’s interview with Christie’s lawyers.

As an employee in the intergovernmental affairs office, Renna was familiar with the administration’s efforts to build relationships with mayors across the state.

She said she remembered Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was on the list of potential Democratic endorsements for Christie, but he was taken off sometime in April 2013.

She said another Christie aide, Matt Mowers, was in charge of asking Sokolich for the endorsement. Mowers, who now works for the New Hampshire GOP, has also been subpoenaed to testify.

As journalists and state lawmakers started looking into the lane closures, Renna said that Kelly called her in December and asked her to delete an email related to Sokolich being angry during the closures. Renna, however, kept a copy.

On January 8, a local paper broke the news that the lane closures could have been a case of political retribution.

The next day, Kelly called Renna “crying to say that she had been fired.”

Renna told lawyers that Kelly said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. You can’t trust anyone, Christina.”

Kelly has waged a successful legal campaign to blunt the investigative committee’s subpoena to turn over documents and other information.

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Bramnick’s remarks on SCI’s legal costs cracking $725,000

Source: Star Ledger -

The legislative committee investigating the George Washington Bridge scandal has so far been billed more than $725,000 in legal fees, according to bills submitted by two attorneys representing the committee.

Jenner & Block, which has several attorneys working for the committee, including lead counsel Reid Schar, has billed the committee more than $687,000 through March, the latest invoices submitted by the firm show.

In addition, attorney Leon Sokol, who worked for the committee in its early days, has to date billed more than $40,000 for his work.

The committee is paying Jenner & Block $350 per hour, and the bills have been split evenly between Democrats in both houses of the legislature. The Assembly has paid the bulk of Sokol’s costs. Democrats have said the rate represents a steep discount off the Chicago-based Jenner & Block’s standard rate.

March was the second most expensive month for the committee as Schar represented the panel in court seeking to force two former Christie administration staffers to comply with subpoenas for documents.

The two former staffers, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and Campaign Manager Bill Stepien, had asserted their rights under the Fifth Amendment to avoid turning over the requested documents.

A judge ultimately ruled in favor of Stepien and Kelly, but according to Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the committee co-chair, the panel is considering redrafting the subpoenas to Kelly and Stepien in hopes of ultimately gaining access to emails. text messages and documents.

Jon Bramnick

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who has been critical of what he says is the partisan nature of the committee, said there is no need for the legislature to be spending money an investigation.

“My problem is this: The U.S. Attorney and Manhattan District Attorney are doing investigations already,” he said. “There is no reason we cant let them play out and if at that point a bi-partisan committee determines there is more investigating to do, at that point you make a determination on how to proceed. But to have million-dollar investigations going on from different entities, to me doesn’t make and sense.”

The total cost of the George Washington Bridge scandal, which erupted in September when two of three local access roads out of Fort Lee were diverted for use by highway traffic, is not known yet.

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Bramnick Bill Will Revise NJ School Classes [audio]

Source: NJ 101.5 [audio] -

Do you think visual and performing arts courses should be equally important as math and science classes? A pair of New Jersey lawmakers are co-sponsoring a bipartisan measure to make it a requirement.

Jon Bramnick

“There are schools that give greater weight to your grade in math than they give to your grade in art,” said Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield). “I think it’s only fair to judge someone gifted in the arts and someone gifted in math and science the same way.”

The bill co-sponsored by Bramnick and Assembly Education Committee chairman Pat Diegnan (D-South Plainfield) would mandate that school districts must weight courses in the visual and performing arts equally with other courses worth the same number of credits in calculating a pupil’s grade point average. Advanced placement courses offered by the district would be exempt.

“Courses such as the performing and visual arts should get equal weight toward your cumulative grade average as math and science,” Bramnick said. “Right now, you’re treating someone who is gifted in the arts as a second class citizen.”

It’s Bramnick’s hope that the legislation is approved by the Legislature and signed into law before the start of classes this fall.

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Angelini comments on Rice stepping aside as Rutgers commencement speaker

Source: Asbury Park Press -

Two days after former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opted not to deliver the commencement address amid a string of protests, Rutgers University President Robert Barchi named former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean as the keynote speaker at the school’s May 18 graduation ceremony.

For Rutgers officials, it marks a step forward in the contoversy even as different factions on both sides of the issue continued the debate with dueling statements.

Rice announced her decision on her Facebook page, culminating a week in which students twice conducted nonviolent protests on campus and after several faculty groups voiced their protest in the form of opposing resolutions aimed at the Board of Governors’ Feb. 4 decision to tab Rice as commencement speaker.

Mary Pat Angelini

“I think it’s a huge missed opportunity and I’m really saddened for the students, the graduates and their families, who would’ve had an opportunity to listen to Secretary Condoleezza Rice,” Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, R-Dist. 11, said. “I just don’t understand the controversy. I understand what they’re saying it is. She’s such a wonderful woman who has been such a wonderful role model to so many young woman across the country of color and of all aspects of life. I’m angry, but I’m also sad.’’

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Fiocchi’s Proposed bill would give tax credit to seasonal businesses [video]

Source: NBC40 [video] -

With the minimum wage increase voted into effect last year, seasonal businesses are feeling the pressures of increased overhead costs.

“I think the Jersey Shore in many areas and especially to the north is in a very difficult and vulnerable position and having these additional costs thrown upon them, really, it’s really unfortunate at this point in time,” said Will Morey, Cape May County Freeholder and owner of Morey’s Piers.

Sam Fiocchi

Sam Fiocchi

“They’ll probably have to charge more money. More for popcorn and rides and dinner and sodas, said 1st District Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi.

The assemblyman’s new bill would give a tax credit to seasonal businesses based on the hours worked by their employees.

“The federal minimum wage is $7.25. The state minimum wage is $8.25,” explained Fiocchi. “They’ll get a tax credit at this point which is $1. So for every hour that is worked by an employee, they get a tax credit for that time.”

Fiocchi says he’ll continue to support seasonal business in New Jersey.

“You know, they provide employment and tax dollars so we need to make sure they’re able to operate on a level playing field,” said Fiocchi.

With state legislature out of session, lawmakers are gathering support for this bill and hope to see it move forward later this month or in June.

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O’Scanlon comments on fiscal conservativism

Source: Asbury Park Press -

Gov. Chris Christie took office in 2010 promising strict fiscal conservatism that would right New Jersey’s economic health, as well as a realistic commitment to balancing spending and revenues.

That balance has proved to be increasingly elusive. Though each year’s budget winds up being balanced, as did every budget before Christie’s arrival because the state constitution requires it, the gap between Christie’s initial revenue forecast and the ultimate year-end result keeps drifting farther apart.

Christie’s first budget wound up with $393 million more in revenue than anticipated. His second ended $289 million short. His third was $934 million in the red. The current year’s gap is projected at nearly $1.1 billion, following last week’s announcement that April revenues were far short of expectations.

The biggest reason for this year’s revenue shortfall is that income taxes are now projected to come in roughly $740 million behind the initial forecast. Most of that gap was identified in April, when people were filing their tax returns and the state discovered that the increase it enjoyed a year earlier, when wealthy taxpayers rushed to declare income before a federal tax increase, wasn’t being sustained.

That was a surprise not only to the Christie administration but also to the nonpartisan analysts at the Office of Legislative Services, as well as their counterparts in other states.

“Everybody was caught off guard,” Christie said. “I don’t think anybody did a great job because they were wrong. But the Treasury Department of New Jersey was not exclusive to that. OLS was wrong and treasury departments in lots of other states were wrong, as well.”

For that reason, says Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, it wouldn’t be fair to hold this spring’s shortfall in income taxes against Christie.

Declan O'Scanlon

“If you take that out, you’re looking at a $300 million or $350 million difference. I don’t think that’s any sign that he’s getting less conservative in his revenue forecasts,” he said. “And I think it’s fair to take that out if you want to assess the overarching philosophy of this administration. They didn’t choose to throw in an extra billion dollars of spending knowing it wasn’t going to be there. That just isn’t so.”

O’Scanlon said most of the state’s increased spending has gone to obligations such as pensions, health insurance and debt, and there aren’t many places left to cut spending to build a surplus — unless there are deeper structural reforms that would help in the long term, though not cure the short-term fiscal problem.

“There’s not a lot that you can slash in this budget that isn’t going to do things like increase property taxes. You don’t have a lot of room,” O’Scanlon said. “Would you rather have a bigger surplus? Yes. But do you pre-emptively make those major cuts? It’s a tough, tough thing to do. You want to be fiscally responsible without making cuts that you may not have to make. It is an art and a stressful exercise to do that. I think the administration has walked that line the best that anyone could.”

The next step will be for Christie to propose ways to balance the budget by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff is scheduled to detail those plans to the Legislature on May 21.

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Arbitration award cap a must

Source: Asbury Park Press – op-ed by Declan O’Scanlon -

Declan O'Scanlon

When Gov. Christie came to office in 2010, he took action to address the biggest problem New Jerseyans have faced for decades — property taxes. Working with the Legislature, historic tax reforms were signed into law. These included a 2 percent limit on property tax levies, increased health and pension contributions by public employees and a 2 percent cap on awards arbitrators can grant when towns and their unions can’t agree on a contract.

These cost control tools are working. Recent property tax data shows the average property tax bill grew by 1.7 percent in 2013 and by the lowest consistent rate in decades since the reforms were passed. While our ultimate goal is to actually cut property taxes, slowing their growth is an essential first step.

The clock is now counting down to the destruction of the delicate framework that has successfully controlled our property taxes. An essential component of that framework — the arbitration award cap that enables local officials to control their largest costs — expired on April 1 of this year. The first contracts exempt from the cap will expire in June. That will be a disaster for property taxpayers throughout New Jersey. Without an honest and effective arbitration award cap, the property tax cap will fail.

The state’s interest arbitration cap law is one of the primary reasons we have turned the tide on the escalation of property taxes. According to the Public Employment Relations Commission, from January 2011 (when the arbitration law took effect) to September 2013, average raises in local contracts, whether through arbitration or negotiations, were 1.86 percent — the lowest in at least 20 years.

The day before the cap was to sunset, a bill conditionally vetoed by the governor to extend it passed almost unanimously through the Senate. The Speaker of the Assembly felt it needed more work. I accept that good-faith challenge and continue to work hard to meet it. In fact, it is one we must meet — and the end product must be one that abides by the unalterable laws of mathematics, and doesn’t blow apart the property tax cap. Without these limits, arbitrators will be able to impose awards similar to those they regularly made prior to this law — frequently increasing labor costs at rates 50 percent to 200 percent higher than revenues could increase.

If the 2 percent property tax cap is left in place (an absolute certainty) without a commensurate cap on labor costs, there will be chaos in local government. Property taxes will rise, services will be slashed and layoffs will be inevitable.

The very people police and fire union officials claim to care about — their own members — will be laid off due to the inevitable slashing of forces resulting from the fatally conflicting policies. Public safety can’t help but be affected, which means it is quite possible people will die while trained and willing young police and firemen are on unemployment lines.

Some union leaders are shamelessly playing on peoples’ emotions by suggesting that this debate is about respect for cops and firefighters. Nothing could be further from the truth. This debate is simply about the math. We all respect the services our police and firefighters provide, but increasing their salaries — which to be fair are already the highest in the nation — at a rate faster than the 2 percent property tax cap is simply untenable.

I have been fighting for and working on these policies for 20 years. Christie was the first executive leader, in conjunction with the Legislature, to sincerely deal with these issues. That was four years ago in an amazingly productive moment in New Jersey when we led the country in passing bold and innovative reforms.

For a moment, as we came together to pass those pioneering reforms, the people of New Jersey could be proud of their elected officials. The renewal of the arbitration award cap, in a form that doesn’t eviscerate the laws of mathematics, is an opportunity for the Legislature to validate the credibility it earned four years ago — or not. There is no middle ground.

I have faith that our present leadership will step up and make the tough decisions. The future fiscal solvency of local governments — and the taxpayers who foot the bills — is on the line.

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Webber on FY-2015 budget: ‘My No. 1 priority is property tax relief’ (video)

Source: WMBC TV (video) -

Jay Webber

Jay Webber was a guest on WMBC’s “Hometown,” with host Lisa Voyticki.

“We have the highest property taxes in the nation and the second-highest overall tax burden. My No. 1 priority is to meet our obligations to the people in need, and kids who need an education, and the public employees who worked hard and deserve a pension and health benefits that they’ve come to rely on. But what about the property taxpayers? They have no special interest group talking up for them at these hearings. When you are the second highest taxed state in the nation, and the highest property-taxed state in the nation, my point is, let’s make that a priority and focus on tax relief and lowering those burdens, not increasing them,” Webber said.

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Webber cited as a rising political star in New Jersey (video)

Source: MSNBC (video) -

Jay Webber

On his “The Daily Rundown” television program on MSNBC, political correspondent Chuck Todd called Assembly Republican Jay Webber “one of the names you should know” in New Jersey politics.

“[Gov.] Christie has said Webber is the future of the Republican Party,” said Todd, adding that “our experts say he is likely to run statewide in the future.”

Webber, R-Morris, Essex, and Passaic, is a member of the Assembly Budget Committee, and the former state party chairman.


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Asw. Schepisi: GOP GWB Committee Members Not Informed in Investigation (video)

Source: NJTV (video) -

“We have no input, we have no decision making, we don’t even have the ability to vote on something. We have no role here whatsoever.” – Asw. Holly Schepisi

Republicans on the special committee investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures are accusing Democrats of withholding information and using the committee to hurt Gov. Chris Christie’s political prospects. Some of those Republicans have sent a letter to the leaders in the Assembly and Senate threatening to walk because of this. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that the Republicans on the committee are finding out after actions occur and are finding out information from the media.

Schepisi said that it is incorrect that all committee members are receiving the same information. She said that she and the three other committee members wrote the letter jointly and sent it, but it is not the first letter that they have sent; it is the sixth or seventh that they have sent to express their concerns. Schepisi said that the Republicans who wrote the letter had to find out about some subpoenas that were issued on MSNBC. She said that yesterday, she received documents from Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop that had never been discussed. She said that the process has broken down.

Holly Schepisi

“We are being told after the fact that items have occurred. The items that are valuable on the [investigation committee] website are document productions of other people. We have seen no memorandum provided by our council to the chairs of the committee, to other members of the committee. We have seen nothing about strategy. We have no input, we have no decision making, we don’t even have the ability to vote on something. We have no role here whatsoever,” said Schepisi.

Schepisi said that the problem is that the last time the committee went into closed session to discuss concerns, the Republicans asked that a conference call be held before making any changes to what has previously been discussed. She said that committee members discussed not subpoenaing people and asking people to come in because a subpoena gives an inference that someone has done something wrong, but then it was found out from MSNBC that subpoenas were sent out.

“Do we have dialogue in the three times that we met? Yes. But they have been more of just briefings by the council as to steps that have already been taken,” said Schepisi.

The Republicans asked to have three more members from their party put on the committee and to have a Republican co-chair. Schepisi said that it is very reasonable request.

“With something of this magnitude, if we are really trying to do a non-partisan, real investigation that is not just merely a campaign for somebody’s gubernatorial run, we have to be beyond reproach ourselves. That has not occurred,” said Schepisi.

Schepisi said that she is hoping that some of the items that have been raised will be taken seriously. She said that she has seen comments that the concerns are absurd or silly, but she disagrees with that. She said that with an investigation of an incident of this magnitude, where potentially millions of dollars will be spent on an investigation with people who are committed to getting to the truth, they have to understand what it is that they are doing. She said that she cannot find out through the media what is taking place because she and the other committee members are there for a purpose.

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