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September 2, 2014

The expense of living in New Jersey applies to every income level, including low-income households. According to a recent report “Housing Spotlight: The Affordable Rental Housing Gap Persists” 44 percent of the state’s low-income renters spend more than half their income on rent and utility costs. Nationwide, the rate is a much-lower 35 percent.

A key factor is the severe housing shortage faced by low-income households. According to the report, there is a shortage of at least 201,286 homes for those who are living 30 percent below the median income of the state. The lower the income, the greater the deficit.

The report, based on U.S. Census American Survey numbers, was jointly released by the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey and the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

August 15, 2014

Be careful behind the wheel this Labor Day weekend. The state is cracking down on drunk drivers with a “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign, which will run from now through Labor Day.

The Division of Highway Traffic Safety has issued 195 grants of $5,000 each [link:http://nj.gov/oag/newsreleases14/pr20140813b.html|to enable towns to set up checkpoints] and saturation patrols between today and Labor Day. In addition, 300 other communities are expected to participate in the campaign unfunded.

Traditionally, Labor Day weekend sees the traffic fatalities of the entire year. In 2012, there were 147 traffic fatalities in New Jersey over Labor Day weekend.

As a point of comparison, on average there is a drunken-driving fatality every 51 minutes in New Jersey. On Labor Day weekend, that jumps to every 34 minutes, most of which occur at night.

This will be the second year of the crackdown. Last year, police made 1,365 arrests during the campaign. They also issued 5,610 citations for spending, 4,153 seatbelt violations, 3,563 violations for driving with a suspended license and 936 tickets for reckless driving. Nearly 1,800 fugitives were apprehended during the campaign.

Penalties for a first DWI arrest can include fines of up to $500, 30 days in jail, one-year driver’s license suspension and court costs. Successive DWI arrests carry stiffer penalties.

August 14, 2014

The AARP is sounding the alarm, warning that many New Jerseyans are facing a “perilous financial situation” as they approach retirement. Not only is the organization urging the state to honor public pension commitments, but it says other legislation is necessary to encourage more reliable retirement savings.

But it could be a little late for some who are soon-to-be retired. AARP cites [link:http://www.nirsonline.org/storage/nirs/documents/2014%20Scorecard/final_2014_scorecard.pdf| a survey by the National Institute on Retirement Security] which demonstrated that the danger is not limited to public pensions.

The average 401k balance in New Jersey is $29,000, according to the survey, and that number has not increased since 2000. Nationally, the typical working-age household has only $3,000 in retirement assets and even those households with people who have already retired only have $12,000 on average.

August 13, 2014

New Jerseyans spend $2,421 a year just to operate a car, according to a [link: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/auto/car-ownership-costs-by-state.aspx|study by Bankrate, an online financial site].

But it nothing to do with gas costs and is all about insurance.

At $1,244 a year, New Jerseyans have the second-highest average car-insurance costs, after Louisiana, which racks up an average cost of $1,277. In most states, drivers pay less than $1,000 a year in insurance. New Jersey also has the highest repair costs in the country, at $393 on average. When it comes to gasoline prices, New Jersey drivers pay an average of $783 a year – lower than all but New York, Washington, DC, Alaska and Pennsylvania.

August 12, 2014

Voters approve of Christie but when it comes to his agenda – not so much

Do New Jerseyans like Gov. Chris Christie’s personality more than his agenda? That could be the case, according to recent polls.

While a new [link:http://eagletonpoll.rutgers.edu/new-wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/release_08-12-14.pdf|Rutgers-Eagleton poll] shows Christie’s approval rating still higher than his disapprovals (52 percent vs. 41 percent), when those same voters were asked about whether they approved of his performance on specific issues, only his handling of Sandy gets a thumbs up (59 percent).

More respondents disapproved than approved of his handling of the economy (50 percent disapprove), taxes (57 percent disapprove), education and schools (47 percent disapprove), the state budget (46 percent disapprove) and the state pension fund crisis (53 percent disapprove.)

While just 34 percent disapprove of his handling of crime and drugs, only 48 percent approve and 18 percent said they didn’t know.

A [link:/assets/14/0811/2345|similar poll conducted by Quinnipiac University] asked New Jerseyans what they thought of Christie’s “No Pain, No Gain” solution to the pension crisis and his program for bail reform.

Bail reform is a big winner – maybe because both Republicans and Democrats support it. Respondents were 4 to 1 in agreement with Christie that suspects believed to be dangerous can be held without bail and those deemed not to be dangerous can be released without cash bail.

However, when asked about Christie’s pension solutions, 50 percent to 41 percent said they disagreed with his decision to reduce the amount paid into the pension fund. Indeed, a major of voters, including 46 percent of Republicans, said Christie should use a combination of increased taxes and reduced payments to solve the dilemma.

August 11, 2014

State legislators will have to consider whether they want to revisit the [link:http://nj.gov/governor/news/news/552014/approved/20140808b.html|11 bills Gov. Chris Christie vetoed] late Friday, some of which are dear to the Democrats’ hearts.

The bills that were vetoed included legislation that would prohibit the treatment or use of “fracking” waste in a New Jersey facility; repeal of the prohibition of sports betting in New Jersey casinos; call for an increase of $21 in energy assistance for qualified families; and create new standards for privatization contracts.

Christie outlined his objections to the bills in individual veto messages, attached to his release.

Three of the bills were conditionally vetoed, meaning that Christie advised the state Legislature to adopt different language and, if so, the bills would be approved.

August 8, 2014

On Aug. 10, 2004 — exactly 10 years ago this Sunday — Gov. James E. McGreevey signed the landmark New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act.

Considered one of New Jersey’s most significant pieces of environmental legislation, [link:http://www.state.nj.us/njhighlands/actmaps/act/|the law] protects the sprawling environmentally-sensitive Highlands region, which covers some 860,000 acres stretching across seven counties and 88 municipalities. The area provides drinking water to more than half the state’s population.

The act split the region into a “preservation” area where development was to be strictly controlled and a “planning” area where more development could be permitted.

Considerable debate and — some believe — political deal-making went into determining how those lines were drawn. Critics also cried foul over the state’s lack of funds to compensate preservation area property owners who could no longer sell the development rights to their land, complaints which persist today.

After the law was signed, the [link: http://www.state.nj.us/njhighlands/news/brochures/fact_sheet_11x17.pdf| Highlands Council], a 15-member board of appointed officials, drafted a regional master plan -- a set of policies and rules managing growth and conservation in the area. Today, the council continues to oversee the process of “conformance,” or bringing local planning in line with the master plan.

As of last month, according to Highlands Council staff, 59 municipalities have submitted “petitions for conformance,” and 47 of those plans have been approved.

August 7, 2014

In the latest Quinnipiac University Poll, 46 percent of New Jersey residents polled said that Gov. Chris Christie should run for president.

Of course, the bad news for the governor’s possible White House aspirations, is that 49 percent said he should stay home in New Jersey.

And in a separate question, 55 percent said he would not make a good president, versus just 39 percent who think he would be.

Still, he fares well in his home state against other Republican names, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. His polling numbers are not as strong, though, in a hypothetical general election against former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton, where he is down by 8 points.

[link:http://www.quinnipiac.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/new-jersey/release-detail?ReleaseID=2068|Quinnipiac University Poll]

August 6, 2014

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority announced last week that it has [link:http://www.njeda.com/web/Aspx_pg/Templates/LatestNews.aspx?topid=721&Doc_Id=2354&ParentDocID=681|awarded $35 million] to 700 Sandy-impacted businesses through the Stronger NJ Business Grant Program. The program offers small business owners grants and forgivable loans of up to $50,000 per affected location, up to a total of $250,000 to reimburse them for lost operating expenses, inventory, equipment and furnishings. The money can also be used for construction.

The announcement follows criticism from small business owners who [link:http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/04/07/at-small-business-roundtable-sandy-survivors-share-frustrations-anger/|complained back in April] that the grant application process was cumbersome and behind schedule. The EDA responded by reducing paperwork requirements and adding additional advisors to help business owners through the process.

Between the Stronger NJ Grant, Loan, and Neighborhood and Community Revitalization programs, the EDA says that a total of over $126 million has been approved so far to help businesses and communities impacted by Sandy.

August 5, 2014

The percentage of New Jersey babies who were being breastfed when they were 6 months old in 2011, according to an [link: http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/2014breastfeedingreportcard.pdf|annual breastfeeding report card] by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

This represents a significant increase from the 2010 figures included in last year’s report, when the 6-month-old breastfeeding percentage stood at 47.4 percent. The change moved the state from being below the national average to being above average.

The state also saw increases in breastfeeding at 12 months, as well as the percentage of babies who were exclusively breastfed at 3 months and 6 months; and the percentage of babies who have ever been breastfed, which stands at 81.6 percent.

State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd has made breastfeeding a priority. In 2011, 10 maternity hospitals across the state received $10,000 each from the state to support the implementation of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, which encourages hospitals to promote and support breastfeeding. The state this year introduced [link: http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/06/09/more-nj-hospitals-encourage-breastfeeding-through-baby-friendly-initiative/|new hospital regulations] that further encourage the practice.

August 4, 2014

In 2013-14, there were 144 school districts in New Jersey made up of a single school, according to the Office of the State Auditor. The [link:http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/legislativepub/auditor/345813.pdf|report on school administrative spending] statewide found these districts spent $63.5 million combined on administration. Still, that was a small fraction of the $1.55 billion spent on school administration statewide. Ninety distrcits had either a superintendent or principal, and 18 with both a superintendent and principal.

August 1, 2014

Most New Jerseyans know that the state is the most densely populated in the nation -- despite the miles of open space in South Jersey and some protected areas. But they might be surprised to learn that New Jersey has an average of 1,196 people living within a square mile.

That compares to an average of 87 people per square mile nationally.

Rhode Island, physically much smaller than New Jersey with 1,034 square miles to New Jersey’s 7,354 square miles, has a similar, if smaller, density with 1,018 people living within each square mile. Massachusetts is the third-densest with 839 people each mile.

To no one’s surprise, Alaska is the least densely populated: one person per square mile. Wyoming is second with six.

July 31, 2014

Typically, New Jersey does pretty well on health rankings when only outcomes are considered. But a recent ranking by Wallethub, an online financial site, compared outcomes to costs and found that New Jersey ranked only 26th in the country for return on investment.

To determine health rankings, Wallethub looked at how a state stacked up in America’s Health Rankings and a state’s death rate as calculated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Jersey ranked 10th and ninth, respectively, by those ratings. It ranked 43rd, however, when it came to cost. The group used the average health insurance premium as a proxy for cost. That brought New Jersey down to 26th.

Top-ranked states were Minnesota, Utah, Kansas, Hawaii, and Iowa.

July 30, 2014

It was once considered a taboo, and for many families the need for mental healthcare or behavioral therapy for their children is tremendously stressful. But according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the website statehealthfacts.org maintained by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, mental healthcare is something a majority of New Jersey children access.

According to the National Survey of National Health, 57.6 percent of New Jersey children have sought mental healthcare for a variety of reason in the past 12 months.

This is a not a question of New Jersey high-income earners taking advantage of medical help if available. Nationally, the number is higher -- 61 percent. New Jersey is on the lower end of the scale, while states such as North Dakota (86.3 percent), Vermont (77.9 percent), Maine (77.8 percent), West Virginia (73.6 percent), and Kansas (72.2 percent) had the highest number of children 2-17 seeking mental healthcare in the previous 12 months. The statistics were for 2011.

July 29, 2014

Summer mosquitos are not just annoying -- they can make you quite sick. And there are no vaccines to prevent against infection. So the state Health Department is warning residents to take extra precautions to prevent infection by wearing insect repellent and clearing standing pools where mosquitos breed.

So far this year, New Jersey health officials have identified 20 cases of dengue and 12 cases of chikungunya, both mosquito-borne viruses.

The state’s Public Health Laboratories have found West Nile virus in mosquito pools in six counties (Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Hudson, Middlesex, and Union) although they have not identified humans with the disease. Last year, 12 residents were identified with West Nile virus. Symptoms include fever, muscle weakness, vomiting, and dizziness.

Chikungunya is a mosquito-borne virus that is typically found in the Caribbean. It is not transmitted person to person but if a mosquito bites a human with chikungunya, and then bites someone else, it can be transmitted that way. It is rarely fatal but the joint pain is severe and debilitating. Other symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, back pain, and rash.

Dengue is unusual in the United States but is common in Puerto Rico, Latin American countries, and Southeast Asia. Symptoms include include high fever, severe headache, and joint pain.

Early treatment is important in all these illnesses both to avoid lasting effects and medical complications.

July 28, 2014

New Jerseyans who think the crisis of undocumented children entering the country is a problem for southern border states should think again. Residents -- typically relatives -- accepted 1,504 unaccompanied minors since the beginning of this year. That gives New Jersey the seventh-largest population of undocumented children seeking asylum. Nationally, the total is 30,340.

Only Texas, New York, Florida, California, Virginia, and Maryland have accepted more children. Border states such as Arizona (186) and New Mexico (18) have taken in relatively few children, who typically are fleeing the crises in Honduras and other Central American countries.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, unaccompanied children apprehended by immigration officials are initially held in ORR shelters until a sponsor can be found. A background check is conducted on all sponsors, usually relatives, and in some cases a home study is conducted.

The child is also given vaccinations and medical screenings before being released to a sponsor’s custody. The sponsor must agree to cooperate with all immigration proceedings. Once in New Jersey, these cases are considered by the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which has an office in Newark.

July 25, 2014

E-filing taxes has become the norm, not the exception, since New Jersey received 3.3 million electronic tax filings for 2013. That’s up 6.5 percent to 83 percent of taxpayers.

State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff was pleased with the trend, noting that e-filed returns can be processed faster with fewer errors. Taxpayers are also likely to obtain tax refunds faster.

July 24, 2014

The two New Jersey police officers killed in the line of duty since July 13 were the first officer fatalities since 2012, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The first, Jersey City Police Officer Melvin Santiago, gained national attention after he was gunned down answering an armed-robbery call at a Walgreen’s July 13. The shooter had grabbed the gun from a security guard and announced to bystanders that he was “going to be famous” shortly before firing on the 23-year-old officer.

Just four days later, Waldwick Police Officer Christopher Goodell, 38, was killed in an unmarked police car when a tractor trailer rammed into him and pushed his car into a retaining wall on Route 17.

There have been 484 police officer fatalities in the state’s history.

July 23, 2014

Participation in high-school athletics has increased 11 percent since 2011, with a total of 285,020 students now competing in 32 sports, according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. Last year alone saw an increase of 5.5 percent.

The sports with the largest number of athletes are outdoor track and field, with more than 37,000 participants; soccer, with more than 33,000 participants; and football with more than 26,000 participants.

The NJSIAA said that participation has increased in less traditional ways. There are now 197 female football players; three years ago there were only three high-school players in the sport.

Female athletes have also increased their participation in wresting, with 83 participants in last year’s winter season.

The NJSIAA is the eighth-largest interscholastic athletic association and offers more championship tournaments than any other state association. It has 428 accredited public and private schools and oversees the activities of about 25,000 coaches and 11,000 officials.

July 22, 2014

Auto thefts are down 32 percent this year, to 682 from May to May, with total motor vehicle thefts down to 763 from May 2013 to May 2014.

In addition to thefts of autos, there have been 32 stolen trucks and buses and 49 other vehicles stolen.

Summer is the most active time for auto thefts so things could change for 2014. However, overall crime has dropped 37.5 percent so far this year.

The typical auto thief is white and male, between the ages of 25 and 29. Unlike many other crimes, however, a substantial amount of auto theft is conducted by women. In the past, statistics show that between 20 percent and 23 percent of those arrested for auto theft are females.

July 21, 2014

Healthcare Quality Strategies, Inc.has examined the Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries in the New Jersey counties most affected by Sandy and found that they suffered an elevated risk for certain behavioral health issues.

By analyzing Medicare claims data for Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset, and Union counties before and one year after the storm, they found a 2.4 percent increase in depression; 7.8 percent increase in anxiety; 10.6 percent increase in alcohol or substance abuse; and a 12.2 percent increase in PSTD.

Other findings include the fact that Hispanics had the highest rate of depression, followed by whites and blacks.

July 18, 2014

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that New Jersey’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6.6 percent in May, the lowest it's been since May 2008, during the depths of the economic recession.

The number of unemployed residents in New Jersey has fallen below 300,000 (296,00) for the first time since that date, and the state has added 20,100 jobs so far this year. According to the governor’s office, which hailed the low rate, the state has added 141,900 private-sector jobs since February 2010.

Not so fast, however, said Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank. While it's good news, New Jersey’s rate of 6.6 percent is still higher than the national rate of 6.1 percent. What’s more, said MacInnes, the state still lags its neighbors New York and Pennsylvania in adding jobs.

New Jersey has recovered 45 percent of the jobs it lost during the recession -- and the differential is due to people giving up on looking, MacInnes said. New York, on the other hand, has recovered 183 percent of its jobs and Pennsylvania has recovered 93 percent. The nation is now at 105 percent of jobs that it had before the recession.

July 17, 2014

"Put sunscreen on" is the mantra in many homes during the summer -- and for good reason. The American Cancer Society estimates that 76,100 cases of melanoma, the most serious form of skin caner, will be diagnosed nationwide in 2014. New Jersey alone is expected to see 2,590 cases this year.

Early diagnosis is key to surviving the disease. The state Department of Health is promoting an initiative at parks and beaches this summer to remind residents to take precautions. Called “Choose Your Cover,” it will provide free cancer screenings at six Jersey Shore beaches this Saturday, as well as information and complimentary sunscreen.

The six cancer-screening events will be held between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Belmar Beach, Bradley Beach, Sea Bright Municipal Beach, Brick Beach III, Island Beach State Park, and Ship Bottom. There will be other events through the middle of August, including stops at Perth Amboy, Sea Isle City, Long Branch, Ventnor, Phillipsburg, Brigatine, Belvidere, Whippany, and the Middlesex Municipal Pool.

July 16, 2014

At $2.13 an hour, New Jersey has the lowest minimum wage for 140,000 workers that rely on tips in the Northeast. And now that the regular minimum wage has been increased to $8.25 an hour, labor advocates are arguing that its time to increase the tipped minimum wage as well.

The tipped minimum wage has not increased since 1991, and New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning New Jersey think tank, argues that it has since lost 45 percent of its value. The $2.13 an hour tipped minimum wage is the federal minimum, but 31 states plus Washington, D.C., have increased it beyond that requirement. New York’s tipped minimum wage is $4.90 an hour; Pennsylvania’s, $2.83 an hour; Connecticut’s, $5.69 an hour; and even West Virginia is $5.80 an hour. Washington and Oregon have the highest tipped minimum wage at $9.32 and $9.10, respectively.

The average age of a tipped-minimum worker is 31, and according to the report, these workers are twice as likely than other workers to live in poor households and not have any type of health insurance.

July 15, 2014

Nearly 64 percent (63.8 percent) of New Jersey’s African-American children live in single-parent homes, an indicator of the typically poor health outcomes of this population.

Latino children don't fare much better; 46 percent live in single-parent households. The rate for white children is 17.4 percent.

In its push to improve the nation’s wellbeing by creating a “culture of health,” The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has begun looking at statistics like these that are social determinants of health. The foundation points to studies that show single-parent households have fewer resources and less stability, which results in poorer health outcomes for children.

Despite the high number of single-parent households in New Jersey, the rate is even higher nationally. New Jersey’s overall rate of children in single-parent households is 29.7 percent. Nationally, it is 35.3 percent. For African-Americans, the rate is 66.87 percent.

What is different nationally is the rate of single-parent households for Latinos. As noted, in New Jersey it is 46 percent but nationally it is 41 percent. The rate is even higher in New York and Pennsylvania -- 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

July 14, 2014

The harvest of New Jersey peaches and nectarines is expected to begin this week, a little late by typical standards, due to last winter’s cold. Nevertheless, New Jersey is expected to have a good crop this year of one of summer’s most savored foods. The Garden State is ranked fourth for peach production, after California, South Carolina, and Georgia.

As with many New Jersey crops, the 2012 census showed a drop in the number of farms raising peaches, from 249 to 233. The number of acres with fruit-bearing trees dropped from 5,791 to 4,438. The number of farms raising nectarines dropped from 49 to 15.

All of the state’s peaches are picked by hand and sold to markets, rather than to canneries. The average value of wholesale production in the state is between $30 million and $35 million for more than 60 million pounds.

July 11, 2014

The state Economic Development Authority approved a tax break package of $260 million over 10 years for Holtec International, an energy-products supplier based in Evesham Township in Burlington County.

In return for the tax break, the company said it would move 160 employees to the Camden waterfront and hire an additional 235.

The chief executive officer of Holtec International is an associate of George Norcross, the Democratic powerbroker who hails from Camden. Holtec is designing a small, remote nuclear reactor that will be safer and cleaner, enabling it to reduce greenhouse gases.

The subsidy is the third-largest ever awarded by the state, after the American Dream complex in the Meadowlands and the Revel Casino.

The award, while hailed by state, local, and EDA officials, immediately came under fire by New Jersey Policy Perspective. Gordon MacInness, president of NJPP, issued a statement noting that the tax incentive boiled down to $658,228 per job -- the highest ever for New Jersey and far higher than any of the megadeals occurring across the country.

According to NJPP’s analysis, New Jersey will lose on the deal unless Holtec remains in the state more than 30 years. The company needs to remain in the state only 15 years to get the full tax break.

MacInness also termed the deal an example of a “reckless surge” of business-tax subsidies that have not proven that tax breaks will grow a state’s economy.

July 9, 2014

The majority (57 percent) of 22,318 prisoners in New Jersey correctional institutions are there due to violent crimes, including homicide, sexual assault, robbery, kidnapping, and simple assault. Only 18 percent of inmates have been committed for narcotics offenses.

The median total term for all inmates is six years, with 36 percent having terms of more than 10 years. Of those, 5 percent are serving life sentences and 71 inmates are serving life without parole.

The median age of all inmates is 34, with 36 percent of those incarcerated 30 years of age or younger.

July 8, 2014

There is at least one New Jersey company that’s growing: New Jersey Resources, the owner of New Jersey Natural gas, jumped 164 spots on the Fortune 1,000, putting it at 699 on the magazine’s list of America’s top corporations.

The Wall Township company, which clocked in at 863 in 2013, is a gas transportation and distribution company, as well clean-energy investor.

NJR ranked eighth in total revenue in the energy industry last year, with $3.2 billion, an increase of 42 percent over the previous year. It employs 900 people with a net profit of 20 percent, according to the company.

July 7, 2014

The Garden State has 603 school districts statewide for its 565 municipalities. There are some districts that manage elementary schools while sending older children to regional high or middle schools. There are also county vocational school systems.

These school systems comprise 2,001 elementary schools and 443 secondary schools. Additionally, there are 87 charter schools in New Jersey as of the 2012-2013 school year.

The public school enrollment for 2012-2013 was 1.36 million children, with 117,803 teachers. The state sends $7.8 billion to individual systems as state aid.

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