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March 31, 2015

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently released a report regarding numerous health factors that add up to how healthy a region is. It looked at issues such as smoking and obesity and physical activity, as well those not typically considered “health” factors, including safe housing and poverty.

For the most part, New Jersey fared better than average nationally.

One statistic stuck out, however, which was safe drinking water. According to the report, 6 percent of the state population was potentially exposed to drinking water exceeding a violation limit during the past year. The average nationally is 1 percent.

This may be because certain areas of New Jersey have contamination issues, since the rankings also listed a range of minimum and maximum percentages. In New Jersey, they ranged from 0 percent to 49 percent.

March 30, 2015

New Jersey has had a harder time recovering from the Great Recession than many other states, so it should come as no surprise that the black unemployment rate in the state was 12 percent in 2014, the 15th worst in the country, according to the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute. White unemployment was 5.5 percent, the 13th worst in the country.

Nationally, the unemployment rate for African-Americans was 11.4 percent. Nationally, white unemployment was 4.9 percent. Hispanics fared somewhere in the middle, with a New Jersey unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, compared with a national rate of 7.4 percent. Asians saw an unemployment rate of 5 percent in New Jersey, compared with 4.9 percent nationally.

Clearly, unemployment impacts African-Americans and Latinos harder than whites and Asians both nationally and in New Jersey. But if there is any good news, it is that these rates, sad as they are, track the overall employment rate and New Jersey fares no worse in racially prejudiced statistics than other states. Unlike Wisconsin, which has a 4.3 percent white unemployment rate but 19.9 percent black unemployment rate and a 9.1 percent unemployment rate for Hispanics.

March 27, 2015

The state Department of Environmental Protection is getting ready for trout-fishing season, which begins a week from tomorrow, by stocking rivers, lakes, and streams throughout New Jersey with 570,000 rainbow trout. The state estimates that about 100,000 anglers will participate this year.

The state is stocking its waters exclusively with rainbow trout this year because they are more disease-resistant than brown or brook trout. The Pequest Hatchery, located in Oxford, Warren County, will be hosting an open house this weekend to teach children to cast, offer exhibits and art work, and provide a flea market for the purchase of equipment.

The Hatchery curtailed its stock last season due to a fungus disease with its brown and brook trout. One other advantage of the rainbow trout, according to the DEP, is that they are more aggressive, thus easier to catch.

Anglers can still fish for naturally reproducing brown and brook trout on a number of waterways, including the South Branch Raritan River, Pequannock River, and Big Flat Brook.

March 26, 2015

Gov. Chris Christie filed a “friends of the court” brief supporting Republican governors in Texas, Louisiana, and South Dakota asking a federal district court to put a halt to implementing President Barack Obama’s deferred-action program, which will prevent undocumented children who grew up in the U.S. and parents of U.S. citizens from being deported.

The program, which would allow these people to obtain work permits, driver’s licenses, and attend college, also requires them to pay taxes. The deferred-action program impacts 149,000 New Jerseyans, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

March 25, 2015

Natural gas from the Marcellus Shale is once again causing PSEG residential customers to see a significant drop in heating costs; the company has said it will extend its credit program through April.

The typical residential gas customer will see the April bill cut by 32 percent.

The credit program began in November and will now have continued for six months. The typical resident, according to PSEG, will have seen a $236 reduction in gas bills this winter. This is despite the fact that PSEG experienced four of its top-five peak days ever for gas delivery due to the cold this winter. According to the company, PSEG makes no profit on the sale of natural gas and passes along what it pays to its customers.

March 24, 2015

Federal budget cuts have created budget tightening across the country, but one area that’s been hit hard is the maintenance of the federal park system. As of last September, the amount of “deferred maintenance” nationally was $11.5 billion. But even here in New Jersey, where there are fewer national parks, the deferred maintenance cost is rising to $181 million.

Deferred maintenance is defined by the federal government as “maintenance that was not performed at the required intervals to ensure an acceptable facility condition to support the expected life cycle of an asset” and is necessary to make sure conditions meet accepted codes, laws, and standards.

In New Jersey, Gateway National Recreation Area has the largest deferred maintenance bill of $89 million. (The New York side of the park has one of $627 million.) Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area has deferred maintenance costs of $73.5 million. The Edison National Historic Site needs $10.5 million in repairs and maintenance. Morristown National Historic Site needs $7 million. And even the newest federal park in the state, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, needs $1 million in maintenance.

The budget situation federally is similar to what the state is facing, so it is likely New Jersey’s parks will soon have soaring deferred maintenance requirements if they don’t already.

March 23, 2015

New Jersey is known as a “payer” state, one where more money goes to the federal government than comes back. In 2013 New Jersey had the fourth-highest per-person contribution to the federal budget at $13,696, according to a data tool called “State Smart,” created by the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan research organization. Only Delaware, Minnesota, and Connecticut contributed more on a per-person basis.

The national average was $8,133. When all taxes are accounted for, including business, excise, and estate taxes, New Jersey contributes $118.3 billion to the federal government.

The same tool estimates that New Jersey receives about $82 billion back, when you consider assistance to individuals, federal contracts, and federal employees. The average per-person federal aid to individuals was $6,024. Most of that was Social Security and Medicare, but it also includes Pell grants, food stamps, and unemployment benefits.

March 20, 2015

Registered lobbyists spent $58.3 million in 2014, an 8.14 percent drop compared with the year before, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Despite the drop, Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC, cautioned against too much being read into the reduction. Lobbying expenditures, he said in a press statement, tend to depend on the number of controversial bills being discussed in the State House.

Most of the reduction in lobbying expenditures in 2014 came from a decrease in communications expenditures, along with cuts in in-house salaries and compensation, according to the ELEC report. Communications outlays dropped from $6.8 million to $3.7 million last year.

Insurance companies were the special-interest group spending the most lobbying money last year, at $4.2 million, followed by hospitals at $3.4 million and energy companies at $3.2 million.

March 19, 2015

In what is the largest penalty of its kind approved by the state Board of Public Utilities, Public Service Electric & Gas and Henkel & McCoy, Inc. will fork over $1.6 million for their responsibility in a fatal natural-gas explosion in Ewing Township last year. The fine also covers other alleged violations of the state’s laws regarding underground pipeline safety.

In investigating the incident, which left a woman dead, the agency identified specific concerns with actions taken by the utility and the contractor that may have led to the incident. The BPU ordered corrective actions to be taken by both PSE&G and Henkel & McCoy to improve safety operations and to ensure compliance with all laws.

In the settlement, PSE&G will pay $725,00 and Henkel & McCoy $600,000. In addition, the state’s largest utility will pay $275,000 for alleged violations of the state law aimed at protecting underground natural-gas pipelines, which came up during the investigation, but were not causally related to the explosion in Ewing.

March 18, 2015

New Jersey’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.3 percent in January, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

That inches it closer to the national unemployment rate of 5.7 percent. A year ago, New Jersey’s unemployment rate was 7.1 percent.

New Jersey’s 6.3 percent unemployment rate is still higher than its neighbors. New York’s is 5.8 percent and Pennsylvania’s is 5.1 percent. But the Christie administration boasted of the high number of jobs added in just one month -- 12,400 -- which was among the biggest gain nationally. Most of those jobs (11,800) were in the private sector.

March 17, 2015

New Jersey tax collections for the current fiscal year through the end of February are up 4.9 percent compared to this time last year, according to the latest revenue report from the state Department of Treasury. But that improvement trails the 5.3 percent rate of growth Gov. Chris Christie's administration is projecting through June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Also unclear is exactly how much ground needs to be made up because the administration has stopped releasing that data in precise dollar amounts on a monthly basis

March 16, 2015

Rutgers School of Nursing (Newark and New Brunswick) is definitely coming up in the world. U.S. News and World Report last week named it to the 25th slot in its ranking of graduate schools of nursing.

Its strong showing put the nursing school in the top 10 percent nationwide.

In 2011, the Rutgers College of Nursing was ranked No. 79. But since then it has been integrated with the nursing program at the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ).

March 13, 2015

Maintaining the proper clearance around electrical equipment and lessening tree-related damage are both essential to reducing the number of power outages that plunge customers into the dark -- sometimes for days and weeks at a time, as occurred during Hurricane Sandy. That helps explain why Jersey City Power and Light is committing $24 million to its 2015 tree-trimming program.

According to JCP&L, the program, which is already underway, will prune trees along 3,300 miles of power lines in 60 municipalities. Trees that are unhealthy or present a threat may be removed entirely, the utility said.

Anthony Hurley, JCP&L vice president of operations, indicated that the utility’s 2014 program reduced tree-related outages by 22 percent over the year prior.

March 12, 2015

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave a final update of the number of residents who enrolled in health insurance through the federally operated marketplace. It was a slightly higher number than was previously reported since more than 1,524 residents completed applications they had started before the February 15 end of the open enrollment period.

The enrollees were nearly evenly divided between those who were new to the marketplace (48 percent of New Jersey enrollees) and those who reenrolled (52 percent). The federal marketplace and state exchanges are a primary way that the Affordable Care Act increased access to healthcare.

Of the enrollees, 83 percent qualified for federal income tax credits to subsidize their insurance. These people could lose their insurance if the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the subsidies are invalid. The court’s decision in King v. Burwell is expected in June.

March 11, 2015

The Guttmacher Institute, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that more than half of all births in New Jersey were unplanned in 2010.

What’s more, 52.4 percent of those births were publicly funded.

When all unplanned pregnancies are added to the estimate, whether they resulted in birth, miscarriage, or abortion, the institute said the cost in New Jersey was $477 million -- $291 from the federal government and $186 million from the state.

Nationally, according to the institute, Medicaid and other public-health programs paid for 51 percent of all U.S. births.

The Guttmacher Institute argues that the nation needs to fund more family-planning services, which will allow women to plan their pregnancies and save the public dollars in the long run.

March 10, 2015

Although a new poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind found that most New Jersey adults (55 percent) say they’ve heard “little” or “nothing” about the Common Core educational standards, it didn’t stop them from having an opinion.

About 38 percent of respondents said they approved of the standards. Republicans, Democrats, and independents are all equally likely to say they approve, but Republicans are a bit more likely to say they disapprove, with 48 percent doing so, compared with 32 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of independents.

Parents of school-age children are more likely to be knowledgeable about the standards and are more likely to know that New Jersey is using a Common Core curriculum. They are also more likely to disapprove of it (48 percent). Sixty-nine percent who said they disapprove of the standards said it reduces flexibility and leads to teaching to the test. Those who approve of Common Core said it can ensure that all students in the state get the same education.

March 9, 2015

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) yesterday released the consulting report that outlines the ecological damage done at the Bayway and Bayonne refineries and outlines why will it take $8.9 billion to restore the site.

The report cites findings of 144 contaminants at or above the regulatory thresholds at which the public is considered at risk. The report also details a total of 600 organic contaminants and hazardous metals in the soil and water in the middle of an area where 15 million people reside.

In addition, the pollutants damaged the habitats of 178 species of fish and birds. The report cited groundwater contamination, as well as cancer-causing contamination.

The report, prepared in 2006, identified the cost of restoration at $8.9 billion. The Christie administration has entered into a settlement for $225 million, sparking outrage from environmentalists and Democrats, who vow to have the agreement overturned. In addition to asking the public to read the report, Lesniak is encouraging the public to sign a petition against the settlement.

March 6, 2015

Ask anyone in the Northeast and they’ll tell you it seems like the snow will never end -- but it's really the cold that has been the singular difference in this year’s weather.

February was the second-coldest on record, with an average of 21.8 degrees. That’s the coldest February since 1934.

March 5, 2015

Ranging from an app that allows riders to buy bus and rail tickets right from their phones to one that offers traffic advisories when driving, the state is investing in mobile applications that can make residents' lives easier.

Apps include one that gives jurors, attorneys, and students directions to courthouses; another allows residents to call for a ride home when they have had too much to drink; and two applications are aimed at guiding people through the parks and outdoors.

There is another application that offers real-time, hands-free traffic advisories on all major highways, as well as one that updates residents on lottery picks. There's also an application that allows citizens to instantly report suspicious activities to the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security.

March 4, 2015

Bears are smart. While New Jersey instituted an annual bear hunt five years ago with the goal of trimming the population, the number of black bears in the state has remained the same -- about 3,500. What’s more, the hunt has resulted in fewer bears being killed each year -- from a high of 592 in the first year to less than 300 this past year.

The Department of Environmental Protection points to the fact that bears have become more wary during hunting season, as well as poor weather, and that bears in this part of the country are more fertile than in other parts of the country.

As a result, the DEP is calling for two hunts a year -- one in December, as has been typical, and another in October, before hibernation season. The DEP also plans to expand the zone in which hunting can occur, and allow bow hunting in addition to firearms.

Some environmental groups are opposed to the bear hunt. The Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel said that the hunts are “unfounded, unwarranted, and will not help manage bears in the state.” What’s needed, said Tittel, is a management plan that will educate the public on habitats and garbage. He said that funding for bear management has been reduced by 90 percent and that in past years, the state hired bear wardens to help educate the public. “This is really about a trophy hunt and getting more people to hunt than managing bears,” he said.

The DEP plan must be published in the New Jersey register and opened for a 60-day comment period before adoption. More information is available on the DEP website.

March 3, 2015

New Jersey’s municipal courts handled more than 5.2 million parking and traffic tickets in 2014, according to the state Judiciary. There were 6.1 million offenses addressed in the courts as a whole, but the majority of cases involved parking (2.3 million) and traffic (2.9 million) tickets. Other offenses included disorderly persons (434,497), other nontraffic offenses, and driving while intoxicated (32,566).

Although 2,367,737 parking tickets seems like a lot, the number of cases involving them has been slightly but steadily dropping in the past few years. In 2010, the number was 2.5 million.

Traffic tickets, however, are going in the other direction. In 2014, there were 2,868,471 cases handled by the courts. In 2010, there were 2,607,893.

March 2, 2015

About 71 percent of New Jerseyans have visited a dentist in the past year, according to the 2012 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s a pretty high rate of dental care, although Massachusetts, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Maryland all had higher rates. Dental extractions are still pretty common, however, since 46 percent of adults said they had at least one permanent tooth extracted. When it comes to senior citizens, 14 percent of those 65 years of age or older said they had all their teeth extracted.

February 27, 2015

With the exception of rape, all crimes in New Jersey saw a rate drop in 2014, according to the state’s Uniformed Crime Reporting unit.

Murders were down 14.5 percent to 343; robberies dropped 15.4 percent to 10,230; assaults were down 9.7 percent to 10,912; burglaries were off 13.6 percent to 30,913; thefts were down 8.2 percent to 108,338; and motor vehicle thefts dropped 16.5 percent to 11,442.

The only exception to this trend was rape. Reported rapes were up 6.3 percent to 879 and attempted rapes were up 23.4 percent to 58.

February 26, 2015

Most New Jerseyans -- 63 percent -- support legalization of assisted suicide, according to the most recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll, with only 29 percent saying they are opposed.

A bill in the Legislature, already approved by the state Assembly and awaiting a vote in the state Senate would allow terminally ill patients to obtain prescription drugs to end their lives.

Support for the “Aid in Dying” bill is strong among Republicans (58 percent) and Democrats and independents (64 percent). And although backing for the bill crosses religious denominations, the more often you attend services the less likely you are to support the bill. Sixty percent or more of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews say they would support the idea, although only 52 percent of evangelical Christians support it. The most devout are the strongest opponents: half of residents who attend religious services at least weekly oppose the bill, while 40 percent support it.

February 25, 2015

A 62-year-old Plainsboro man has been indicted on charges that he fraudulently collected $243,000 in Social Security benefits for his father for 29 years after the father died.

The father had worked a second job using a false name and a second Social Security number he obtained in that name. After his father died, the son continued to collect benefits paid in connection with that false identity, for which no death was reported.

Nicholas Severino Jr.’s father, who died in 1984, was collecting Social Security benefits under the name Frank DiCarlo for working a second job. Severino Sr. set up a joint bank account under that name as well as that of his son before he died. Because there was no record of DiCarlo’s death, a total of $243,844 was deposited in the account for 29 years -- an average of $700 a month.

The fraud was discovered when the Social Security Administration attempted to contact DiCarlo at his last known address in Camden, under its Centenarian Project, in which the SSA routinely reaches out to those who would have reached the age of 100 to verify they are still living. Benefits were suspended when DiCarlo could not be found but Severino’s address was on the joint bank account.

February 24, 2015

Although most (63 percent) New Jerseyans believe Atlantic City’s best days are behind it, 57 percent said they agreed with last month’s state appointment of an emergency management team to assist in solving the city’s financial issues, according to the most recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll.

Thirty-five percent think Atlantic City should be left to handle these issues on its own.

A solid majority agreed with the idea, regardless of party affiliation, race, gender, or age. South Jerseyans (68 percent), urban (63 percent), and shore residents (62 percent), however, were more likely to support the state’s involvement than were suburban residents (51 percent.)

February 23, 2015

NJ Transit handled 267 million rides on the state’s system of buses, rail, and light rail in 2014.

That represented a 7 percent increase in rail ridership over 2013 -- to 84 million -- but a relatively flat number of bus riders at 161 million. The number of light-rail riders increased by almost 5 percent to 22 million.

By far the largest number of system riders come from the north and central areas of New Jersey. Bus riders are pretty much split between north (69.6 million) and central Jersey (68.3 million). The southern division only had 23 million rides.

As for rail ridership, there were 52 million rides through the Newark division and 31 million through Hoboken. Only 1 million rides went through Atlantic City.

Light-rail ridership followed a similar pattern, with 13.8 million rides on the Hudson-Bergen line; 5.3 million through Newark; and only 2.9 million on South Jersey’s River Line.

February 20, 2015

Things are not going so well in New Jersey, according to the most recent State of American Wellbeing index of the 2014 Gallup-Healthways Index report. New Jersey ranked only 34th of 50 states in terms of wellbeing, which takes into account how people feel about their life’s purpose, social and financial life, physical health, and community.

Among these metrics, New Jersey ranked highest (20) when it came to physical health. Social wellbeing, which was defined as having supportive relationships and love in your life, was pegged at 23, slightly better than half the states.

However, when it came to financial wellbeing -- traditionally an area in which New Jersey excels -- the state’s residents only ranked 29th. Financial wellbeing in this case was defined as managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.

The two areas in which New Jersey severely underperformed the rest of the country were purpose and community. Purpose was defined as liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve goals. In this area New Jersey only ranked 43rd. And New Jersey’s leaders should take serious note of the ranking of 48 for community. This element was defined as liking where you live, feeling safe, and taking pride in your community.

The index was based on 176,702 interviews with people across the country last year.

February 19, 2015

The state attorney general’s office Division of Law earned a 14 percent increase in the amount it recouped in judgments and litigation settlements last year, totaling $346 million.

The largest settlement was with the Occidental Chemical Corp. for $190 million to resolve liability for past cleanup and removal costs for damages related to contamination of the Passaic River. (Altogether, the state has recovered $355.5 million from three Passaic River litigations, the previous two in 2013.) Occidental is the legal successor to the Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Co.

The AG’s office also touted a $1.8 million settlement against eight auto dealerships and their two owners for deceptive sales tactics, including failure to disclose mechanical defects or past damage to used cars. The eight dealerships include Route 22 Toyota, Route 22 Honda, Route 22 Nissan, and Route 22 Kia -- all of Hillside.

There were also a number of multi-settlements, including a $2.45 million settlement against GlaxoSmithKline for promoting its asthma drug Advair and antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin for unapproved uses in violation of consumer protection laws.

A more complete list is located on the Division of Law’s website.

February 18, 2015

Two years ago, ProPublica analyzed U.S. Department of Education data from across the country looking to see how large school systems and states compare when it comes to offering opportunities to a broad economic spectrum of the population. Although New Jersey fared comparatively well, one statistic stood out: only 14 percent of students in New Jersey took at least one Advanced Placement course. The data was limited to the 135 districts in the state with more than 3,000 students. An interactive data feature makes it possible to look at each of these districts.

Of those who took an AP course, 62 percent passed -- higher than the national average.

Most other indicators in what ProPublica called the “opportunity gap” were either slightly above or at the national average: 16 percent of students take advanced math; 12 percent are in a gifted and talented program; 20 percent take chemistry; and 9 percent take physics.

One final statistic jumped out as high above the national average: sports participation in New Jersey is 52 percent.

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