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October 24, 2016

The Democratic gubernatorial front-runner filed finance reports last week, showing exactly why he’s the front-runner. Phil Murphy filed forms showing he has raised $2,012,624.21 in cash contributions. He’s also promised a loan of $10 million to his campaign. That’s not far off the total of $13.5 million that Gov. Chris Christie raised for his last election in 2013. And it’s still about eight months until the primary takes place and more than a year until the general election. Murphy does seem to plan on spending it, though, as he has already dispensed $1.6 million from the campaign, according to the reports.

October 21, 2016

The number of private-sector jobs in New Jersey keeps inching up, with the most recent report from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development saying 3,300 jobs were added in September, and August numbers were revised upward by 1,500. All told, private-sector employers have added 54,200 jobs since September 2015.

The business sectors that saw gains this month were: professional and business services (+8,800); education and health services (+4,500); manufacturing (+1,600); trade, transportation and utilities (+800); and information (+700). Losers included leisure and hospitality (-8,100), other services (-4,100), construction (-600), and financial activities (-400).

The unemployment rate remained at 5.3 percent.

October 20, 2016

It’s a slightly different tally than the one touted by state officials, but according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank, the cost of tax cuts and credits approved in the Transportation Trust Fund package will be $1.4 billion. Basically, the TTF, which was signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie late last week, calls for a 23-cent tax increase to raise $1.2 billion to pay for transportation capital projects but cuts $1.4 billion from an already stretched annual budget.

NJPP says that 45 percent of the $1.4 billion is due to the sales tax cut from 7 percent down to 6.875 percent the first year and 6.625 percent the second. On average, this will save New Jerseyans $99 a year, according to NJPP. (Most lawmakers believe the cut will never take place, since a new governor will reverse course rather than blow such a big hole in the annual budget.)

A retirement income exemption will consume 9 percent of the $1.4 billion, as retirement income between $10,000 and $100,000 will be exempt. It means an average tax cut of approximately $670 for those who are eligible.

The elimination of the estate tax represents 39 percent of the cost, costing $562 million. Expanding the earned-income tax credit will account for 5 percent of the tax cut.

Veterans will also see a tax cut, which will cost about $320,000 or 2 percent. The average cut in this category will be $105.

October 19, 2016

New Jersey is going to receive a $65 million settlement from Volkswagen as a result of the car manufacturer’s emissions' scandal, according to the New Jersey Sierra Club. The state had filed a civil lawsuit, complaining of the air pollution Volkswagen caused by placing phony emissions devices in diesel vehicles and by rigging its software to bypass pollution control systems during state emissions’ testing.

The Sierra Club is already predicting that the Christie administration will use the windfall to plug a hole in the budget, rather than use it to address air pollution. “We’ll be getting $65 million but will it actually be going to make up for what Volkswagen did?” asked Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “In other states the money is going to reduce air pollution and to promote zero-emission vehicles. Will the Christie administration just take the money to fill the budget and give tax cuts to the wealthy?”

October 18, 2016

One person, one vote is the rule, but that doesn’t mean all votes count the same — which may sound vaguely unconstitutional but is just the way things work in our democracy. Simply put, the votes in swing states, which have a larger influence on a presidential election, have more weight. A recent report from WalletHub, the personal finances website, assigned a “Voter Power Score” to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to its rankings, New Jersey has a power score of 38, which some residents and politicos may find surprising. The most powerful ballots are cast in Arizona, which has a score of 207.5; the least, in California, which is ranked 51st with a power score of 0.37.

The same principles apply to Senate races, only here the swing states are those that most determine which party controls the upper house. New Jersey, which is not home to a current Senate race was not rated.

October 17, 2016

New Jersey took in a total of $5.08 billion in tax collections during the first quarter of the 2017 fiscal year, according to official revenue data released late Friday afternoon by the state Department of Treasury. That marked an improvement of roughly $43.4 million compared with the same three-month period during the last state fiscal year, generating a year-over-year increase of 0.9 percent.

But Gov. Chris Christie’s administration is projecting tax collections to grow by 3.6 percent by the time the current fiscal year ends on June 30, 2017. Tax collections will now have to grow at a stronger pace than they have been during the final three quarters to live up to those expectations.

Since New Jersey’s Constitution requires a balanced budget, any shortfall in tax collections for the full fiscal year would force Christie’s administration to make cuts or some other spending adjustment to prevent a deficit.

October 14, 2016

The state Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) was responsible for jailing 65 percent fewer youth in the New Jersey juvenile detention system last year than in 2014. That equates to 7,500 fewer juveniles admitted to the system, 89.1 percent of whom are youth of color. It also means that, on a daily basis, there were 536 fewer juveniles in the system. JDAI is a national program that develops alternatives to housing delinquent youth in juvenile jails – which are saved for only the most serious and chronic offenders. Instead, JDAI provides strategies that not only work to provide correction but also reform for troubled youth. Such strategies include electronic monitoring, home detention and counseling, among others. The program not only has reduced the rate of reoffenders, but also has reduced costs significantly and a number of New Jersey counties have been able to close their detention facilities.

October 13, 2016

The U.S. Energy Information Administration had some good news Wednesday. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions dropped to their lowest point since 1991. (CO2 emissions are blamed for climate change.)

The EIA cited three factors for the fall. The country experienced mild weather in the first six months of this year, because it had the fewest heating degree days since 1949. Heating degree days are an indicator in heating demand. Overall, total primary energy consumption was 2 percent lower compared with the first six months of 2015 — driven in large part by a 9 percent drop in residential energy consumption. Coal consumption, which generates more carbon emissions than natural gas, fell 18 percent as the country changed its mix of coal versus natural gas. (The consumption of both dropped, but coal consumption dropped more. Consumption of renewable fuels that do not produce carbon dioxide increased 9 percent during the first six months of 2016 comparied with the same period in 2015. Wind energy accounted for nearly half of that increase.

October 12, 2016

Violence and bullying are down by 13 percent in New Jersey schools, at least in the two school years after 2012-2013, according to the state Department of Education. The most recent data available are for the 2014-2015 school year. In the 2012-2013 school year, 21,170 incidents were reported to the DOE. Two years later, in the 2014-2015 school year, 18,332 incidents were reported.

The database that collects this information tracks incidents of violence, vandalism, weapons, substance abuse, and harassment/intimidation/bullying. The biggest drop was in bullying, which went from 7,740 incidents to 6,214 incidents. Schools also saw a drop in substance abuse incidents, from 3,358 to 2,982. The drop was mostly in use violations, rather than possession or distribution.

Although violent incidents also saw a drop from 7,895 to 7,262, weapons violations remained almost the same, going from 1,047 to 1,037 incidents. Thankfully, there are only a handful (6-10) gun violations each year, with most weapons being classified as “other.”

October 11, 2016

Robert Schroeder, a former Bergen County assemblyman who represented the 39th District for two terms between 2010 and 2014, pleaded guilty to stealing $1.9 million from people who loaned him money for a business venture, as well as writing $3.4 million in bad checks to creditors.

Schroeder, a former Republican whip from Washington Township in Bergen County, was accused of trading on his public stature in the Assembly by members of the state attorney general’s office in order to gain the trust of business associates. “Schroeder lied to lenders, misappropriated funds entrusted to him, and willfully passed dozens of bad checks, all of which cost his creditors over $5 million,” said Attorney General Christopher Porrino, in a written statement.

Schroeder pleaded guilty to charges that he stole about $1.9 million from at least five individuals who lent him money for a supposed oil drilling business venture in North Dakota. Instead, Schroeder used the money for personal expenses and other debts. In order to cover himself, he wrote $3.4 million in bad checks to 12 individuals who lent him funds for business ventures, and another two companies.

Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Schroeder be sentenced to eight years in prison. He is required to pay full restitution of $5,318,150 to his victims, and he will be permanently barred from public office and public employment in New Jersey.

October 7, 2016

New Jersey doctors are not feeling positive about the future of the medical profession. A survey conducted by the Physicians Foundation found that 44 percent said they felt “somewhat negative or pessimistic” about the future and 26 percent said they felt “very negative/pessimistic,” for a total of 70 percent. That is significantly higher than the 63 percent of physicians who felt this nationwide.

Although 73 percent said they would choose to be a physician if they had to do it over, 52 percent said they would not recommend medicine as a career to their children. The biggest problems? Regulatory/paperwork burdens (54 percent) and erosion of clinical autonomy (38 percent). On the other hand, these same doctors said that patient relationships (74 percent) and intellectual stimulation (61 percent) were the most satisfying parts of the job.

October 6, 2016

The Department of Children and Families deals primarily with issues that occur within the home. Only 15 percent of cases require an out-of-home placement, but those children placed out of the home were very young. Almost half — 46 percent — were five or younger. Twenty-six percent were two years old or younger; 19 percent were aged three to five years. Those between six and 12 made up 31 percent of out-of-home placements.

These children were divided almost equally by gender; 51 percent were male, and 49 percent female. More than 40 percent of them were identified as African-American (42 percent), while 29 percent of children placed out of the home by child protective services were white. The remaining children in this category were Hispanic (22 percent) or other (5 percent.)

October 5, 2016

Who populates the jails run by the state’s Department of Corrections? According to DOC statistics, 59 percent of inmates were sent to jail for crimes against persons, which include homicide, sexual assault, aggravated or simple assault, robbery, kidnapping, other sex offenses, and other offenses. The state says that only 16 percent of inmates have been committed for narcotics offenses; 81 percent of those are for the sale and distribution of narcotics.

Sixty percent of inmates are black, 23 percent are white, and 16 percent are Hispanic. Only 1 percent are Asian. The population is young: 36 percent are aged 30 or younger; the median age in all facilities is 35. Six percent are serving life sentences with parole eligibility and 38 percent have terms of 10 years or more. Seventy-eight are serving life sentences without parole.

October 4, 2016

A survey of New Jersey physicians, conducted by law firm Brach Eichler, had 81 percent of respondents saying the increasing administrative burden on their practices had a negative effect.

That’s not the only thing doctors say has had a negative impact. About 65 percent say it has decreased reimbursement rates; 54 percent say it increased scrutiny of their practices; 53 percent say it reduced time spent with patients; and the same percent say it is causing them to spend more on technology.

As a result, 48 percent are spending more time dealing with insurance companies and 32 percent have had to add staff to handle the load.

Insurance companies are considered the villains by the majority of these doctors, with 54 percent pointing to them as the primary source for the current healthcare crisis. Increased government intervention (61 percent) and increased costs (50 percent) were also pointed to as problematic.

That led to nearly 44 percent changing the structure of their practice last year and 46 percent saying they plan to do so this year. The issues doctors were most concerned about were administrative burdens, regulatory/compliance issues, and reduced reimbursements.

October 3, 2016

Lobbyists are required to report whenever they’ve tried to influence state legislators on a pending bill, and other than the state budget, the bills that drew the most interest were those related to Blue Cross/Blue Shield Horizon’s “tiered networks” proposal, according to a report by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The proposal allows Horizon to create a separate “tier” of healthcare providers — including hospitals — that agree to special discounts in return for more client referrals. The beneficiaries of the plan are expected to be consumers.

The single bill that drew the most lobbying was the annual state budget, which resulted in 301 official contacts by 92 different entities. The Minimum Wage bill, with 108 official contacts by 61 lobbyist entities, was the third most-active bill in terms of lobbyists.

The only bill that passed, of the top 10 that drew lobbyists’ interest, was the state budget.

September 30, 2016

About 135,000 students opted out of last year’s PARCC standardized tests, according to a study by the state Department of Education, making clear that the choice to avoid the tests was a movement —and not a scattered boycott.

Opt-out rates were progressively higher from elementary to middle to high schools in both English language arts and mathematics. The study also found that affluent school districts were more likely to have higher opt-out rates. According to the report, there was more than one reason for the mass opt-outs: There is skepticism with high-stakes testing in general and the new PARCC assessment in particular; parents are concerned about the Common Core State Standards rollout; the teachers union opposes what they see as premature teacher accountability measures; and there is confusion in the messages from state policymakers about graduation requirements.

September 29, 2016

Each year, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes schools that demonstrate overall academic excellence or progress in closing achievement gaps and calls them “Blue Ribbon Schools.” This year, 10 New Jersey schools had this honor bestowed on them — six public schools, including a charter and a county magnet school, and four Catholic schools.

The schools chosen for 2016 include three public elementary schools — Cedar Hill Elementary in Towaco, Essex Fells School in Essex Fells, and Lyncrest Elementary School in Fair Lawn. Also named were four K-8 Catholic schools — Academy of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Franklin Lakes; St. Augustine of Canterbury School, Kendall Park; St. Cassian Elementary, Upper Montclair; and Saint Peter School, Point Pleasant Beach.

Rounding out the 10 schools are a public middle school, Cranbury School, Cranbury; a chartered middle school, Central Jersey College Prep Charter School, Somerset; and a county magnet high school, Academy for the Performing Arts, Scotch Plains.

September 28, 2016

Although New Jersey’s economy is improving, it’s not improving as much as other states’, according to the most recent census figures and New Jersey Policy Perspective. That’s because its 0.3 percent increase in median income — now $72,222 — was the smallest increase in all 50 states last year. According to NJPP, one in four New Jerseyans is struggling to get by, while one in 10 lives below the official and inadequate poverty line. One in 20 lives in absolutely desperate economic circumstances.

New Jerseyans of color have an even greater burden; 18.6 percent of African-Americans live in poverty, down from 19.7 percent. Hispanics have an even greater number in poverty — 20.2 percent, down from 21.2 percent. Only 8.2 percent of whites live in poverty. Asians saw their rate of poverty rise from 6.8 percent to 7.1 percent.

September 27, 2016

This may come as a surprise to the NJEA, but New Jersey has just been ranked the top state for teachers in a new report from WalletHub, the personal finances website. The study considered 16 key indicators to come up with its scores, including median starting salary, pupil-teacher ratio, and school safety.

New Jersey’s was ranked second for academic and work environment, third for public- school spending per student, fourth for student-teacher ratio, sixth for school safety, and tenth for average starting salary for teachers (adjusted for cost of living) — racking up a total score of 63.26.

New York was rated seventh in the survey (60.40) and Pennsylvania earned a total score of 57.29.

Hawaii ended up at the bottom of the heap (22.22 total score), with a ranking of 51 for job opportunity and competition. The study included all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

September 26, 2016

According to a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal reform —as reported by the New Jersey Civil Justice Institute — New Jersey’s legal climate ranks 38th in the country, a drop of six points since a prior survey in 2012. That isn’t bad news, it’s bad business: 75 percent of attorneys U.S. companies indicated that a state’s legal environment affects important business decisions, like where to relocate or expand.

The American Tort Reform Associated summed it up succinctly, the NJCI reported, naming New Jersey as its latest “Judicial Hellhole.” With lawsuits like these, it’s easy to see why the Garden State got slapped with the satanic appellation:

  • A woman is suing the police because she was too drunk to sit in a chair without falling out of it.

  • A customer took Applebee’s to court when he burned himself bowing his head to pray over a sizzling steak fajita.

  • A couple has filed a discrimination suit seeking to have excessive flatulence covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The New Jersey Civil Justice Institute isn’t laughing. It is, however, sponsoring a program of 11 legal issues that New Jersey needs to tackle if it wants to improve its reputation and its legal climate.

September 23, 2016

While other parts of the country have been experiencing bias-related shootings and mass protests, New Jersey has been relatively quiet. But that doesn’t mean there are no instances of bias-related crime here. There were 164 investigations into racial bias in New Jersey last year, according to a report by the state police, with only 45 of them “cleared” — meaning there was some resolution such as an arrest.

The total number of bias incidents in 2015 was 367; that included ethnic and religious bias, as well as racial. Harassment accounted for 50 percent of all incidents and there were no weapon offenses or killings. There were only two aggravated assaults and 13 simple assaults.

September 22, 2016

Everyone knows the cost of college textbooks – as well as of textbooks in private high schools – has been rising as fast as the cost of tuition. At Rutgers University, students spend an average of $1,500 a year.

It used to be that you could often buy used textbooks to save some money. No more. Nowadays, most class material comes in electronic form and what you actually buy at the campus store is an “access code” that gains you entry to a website. In effect, textbook purveyors have eliminated the competition and ensured that the price allows for only one individual to buy access for one course, according to NJ PIRG. No longer can you borrow the books from the library or share with a friend.

“We have reached a point where the cost of textbooks has become a barrier to those values of equity and access in education, and access codes are not doing anything to solve this problem,” said Lily Todorinova, the Rutgers Undergraduate Experience librarian.

September 21, 2016

Most of the United States has seen a decline in undocumented immigrants, due to a relatively steady exchange with Mexico, in which as many Mexicans leave the United States as enter it illegally.

Not so, New Jersey, which has seen an increase of about 50,000 unauthorized immigrants living in the state since 2009. That’s because New Jersey and five other states have seen undocumented population increases from other countries other than Mexico. Nationally, there’s been an increase in undocumented immigrants from Central America, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as Asia (India and China).

September 20, 2016

Gov. Chris Christie’s poll numbers have dropped to their lowest ever – and that was before yesterday’s opening statements in the Bridgegate trial. A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed Christie with a 67 percent unfavorable rating in the Garden State, while only 23 percent of registered voters said they had a favorable opinion of him. This is an all-time low.

Christie fares even worse when it comes to his job ratings, with 69 percent saying they disapprove of the way he functions as governor.

When it comes to individual issues, he also does poorly. Only 15 percent approve of the way he’s handled the pension funding deadlock, 22 percent approve of the way he handles taxes, 25 percent on transportation and infrastructure and 27 percent on jobs and the economy. He also does poorly on schools and education (31 percent approval).

This negativity extends to feelings about the state as a whole, with just 25 percent of voters believing the state is heading in the right direction. The poll also asked voters to judge New Jersey’s two U.S. Senators, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez. Booker gets high ratings: 55 percent approval. Menendez, who is under federal indictment, does much poorer – 28 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable. But even those ratings are higher than Christie’s.

September 19, 2016

About 10 percent of New Jersey schoolchildren are “chronically absent,” which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year, according to a recent report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ). This works out to 136,000 children during the 2014-2015 school year, which is when the survey was conducted. The bulk of the problem seems to occur in the very early grades and in high school.

Most of the chronic absenteeism occurs in 216 districts. According to Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ president and CEO, some of these districts — such as Trenton — have taken a proactive stance toward the problem, and have seen the rates of absenteeism drop from some months of 25 percent to others now at only 6 percent.

September 16, 2016

Hospital readmissions are a key focus of the Affordable Care Act; any hospital stay can cause costs to soar, and limiting readmissions is not all that difficult to do. The federal government pegs the cost of readmissions at $17 billion annually.

Limiting readmissions requires monitoring patients after they leave the hospital. So a key provision of the ACA is that hospitals are penalized in Medicare and Medicaid payments if hospital admissions remain high.

Through an initiative of the New Jersey Hospital Association, Garden State hospitals have focused on the factors that prevent avoidable readmissions and thus have seen a reduction of 13.3 percent since 2010 – the second highest in the nation after Hawaii. What might be even more surprising is the fact that New Jersey, which had the second highest readmission rate in 2010, now has among the lowest — tied with nine other states. New Jersey’s readmission rate stands at 17.6 percent.

September 15, 2016

There were 946,000 New Jerseyans living in poverty in 2015, about 10.8 percent of the population. That’s better than 2014, when 11.1 percent of state residents were living in poverty. But the problem was still pretty widespread, as it means 200,000 more people are living in poverty now than in 2007. Poverty is defined by the federal government as having an income of $24,250 for a family of four.

Child poverty is even worse, as 15.6 percent of New Jersey kids live in poverty. In 2007, there were 11.6 percent in poverty.

Statistics are provided by the U.S. Census which released a new report to the press. Legal Services of New Jersey also provided information.

September 14, 2016

There are 6.1 million licensed drivers living in New Jersey, which works out to 855 drivers for every 1,000 eligible individuals (16 and over in age).

Of these, almost 3 million drive to work alone; 33,000 carpool. Mean travel time is 29.7 minutes, which is one of the longest average commutes in the nation. (Maryland and New York both clock more than 30 minutes.)

September 13, 2016

Given all of New Jersey’s well-known problems — high taxes, struggling economy, population density, and political paralysis — it could be assumed that the loud complaining among our citizenry is indication of a very unhappy state. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but what is shocking is that 31 other states are unhappier than we are. That is if you believe the most recent WalletHub survey, which ranks New Jersey 20th happiest among states and the District of Columbia. To create this ranking, WalletHub looked at issues such as economics, health, and depression.

New Jersey actually ranked sixth in the country when it came to “emotional and physical well-being.” The Garden State has the third lowest depression rate and fourth lowest suicide rate and consistently does well on health surveys. On the other hand, New Jersey ranked pretty low when it came to economic or “work environment” issues, coming in at 42nd. It has the third highest long-term unemployment rate. Among the other factors considered were number of work hours, commute time, job security, and income growth.

When it comes to “community and environment rank,” it seems New Jersey falls somewhere in the middle — ranking 24th. One thing in its favor is its low divorce rate — fourth lowest in the country. But other factors such as volunteerism — on which New Jersey typically rates poorly — as well as safety, weather, and leisure time brought this score down.

September 12, 2016

In New Jersey, women earn on average 80 cents for every dollar that white men earn, slightly above the 79 cents national average, according to studies by the National Women’s Law Center.

If you’re African-American or Latina, the situation is even worse. A recent study by the center found that African-American women earn only 58 cents for every dollar that white men in New Jersey earn. That’s below the national average of 60 cents per dollar for African-American women.

Latinas fare even worse – 43 cents compared to a dollar for white men. The national average for Latinas is 55 cents.

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