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Larry Benjamin's blog

Monday, July 31, 2006

Washington wheeling

Congress' propensity to combine proposals - often with vastly different constituencies - that may not pass on their own into one bill that members of the House and/or Senate can't turn down because of potential voter repercussions is a display of wheeling and dealing at its worst. It's just as bad as lading major spending bills with special-interest pork, a specialty in both Washington and Trenton.

The case in point is wedding a $2.10 an hour increase in the minimum wage over three years with a multibillion-dollar cut in the estate tax. The minimum wage bill would help 6.6 million people and is a favorite of liberals. The estate tax cut would help 8,000 already rich folks and had conservative support. The House passed the combined bill Saturday. Let's hope the Senate sees through the sham.

Legislation of such import should stand on its own. The bills already have had separate hearings; they should have separate floor debates and votes. The voters should know how their representatives stand - and vote - on key issues. And if it makes them work a little harder and face the music more often, that's what we're paying them $165,200 to do.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Politically partisan

The Republicans may be in the minority in Trenton, with their proposals hardly ever seeing the light of day. But the Democrats in charge keep stoking their skepticism, giving GOP legislators plenty of opportunities for some zingers.

In the debate Thursday over whether to dedicate half of the sales tax increase - about $600 million - to property tax relief, the Republicans wanted details on how the money would be used and assurances it would be apportioned fairly. "It's really a big ruse. It's a shell game,'' Assemblyman Sean T. Kean, R-Monmouth, said. And why not, after seeing the Democrats distribute special funds and the budget's "Christmas tree items'' almost exclusively to Democratic-controlled districts in the past year.

But Democratic leaders said not to worry. "People in the Legislature are educated enough and intelligent enough to do the right thing,'' said Sen. Joseph Coniglio, D-Bergen. That inspired Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin, R-Monmouth, to quip: "That's like saying, 'We're from the Legislature, you can trust us.''' Given their dismal record on property tax and ethics reform, why should anyone trust any legislators?

All this back and forth prompted Democrats to criticize the Republicans for politicizing the sales tax dedication issue. After their heavyhanded control of Trenton the past 2 1/2 years, the Democrats are the last ones who should cry "politics.''

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Only in New Jersey

If you build a garage with underground parking levels on the flood plain of a major river, you shouldn't be surprised when it gets flooded. But New Jersey went ahead in the early '90s and built its $31 million Statehouse garage on the Delaware River in Trenton anyway. So now - no surprise - we taxpayers have to pay for flood damage to the garage after last month's rains and river spillage.

For a state with big-time financial woes, New Jersey doesn't need another unexpected bill: $600,000. That brings the total for parking garage repairs after flooding in September 2004, April 2005 and now this year to about $2 million. And the overseer of the Statehouse and its grounds says there is no engineering solution. So we can expect to be hit with a new repair bill the next time the waters rise.

Why didn't those who planned and approved the parking garage think of the consequences of building on a flood plain? How silly to ask. After all, this is New Jersey.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Inherently wrong

Some court rulings make you want to cry out, "But it's not right!'' The decision Tuesday in Hudson County that an absentee father can share in the inheritance of his late daughter is one of those times. This guy will get almost $400,000 from his 22-year-old daughter's estate, his share of what remains from a $2.5 million medical malpractice settlement from 1989. The suit was filed on behalf of the girl, who was born with disabilities from a spinal cord injury during birth. The money was to pay for her care.

But this father was not part of his daughter's life. He did not pay child support. He says he tried to spend more time with her, but was rebuffed by her mother. (They were not married.) Is there any wonder?

The judge said he would have "broken ground'' to deny this man the same rights as other fathers in New Jersey to collect an inheritance from a child. Sorry, but this was the case to do just that. The man did nothing for his daughter during her life. He surely doesn't deserve anything from her in death.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The friendly confines and more

One thing about a vacation trip: It reminds you that other cities and other regions have plenty to offer, too. Take Chicago, for instance. Its skyline is more spectacular than New York's. Its museums -- the Art Institute and the Field (from previous visits) and the Shedd Aquarium (this time) -- are on a par with, or better than, New York's or Philadelphia's. The boat ride from the Chicago River through the locks and out into Lake Michigan is incomparable. And the drive along the lake is quite a sight.

And then there's the reason for the trip -- Wrigley Field. This lifelong baseball fan had never been there. It didn't disappoint. The bars, restaurants and all those rooftop bleachers make Wrigleyville one of a kind. It's the friendly confines for good reason, but we didn't expect to meet so many friendly baseball fans. Sure, its scoreboard is so early 20th century and those stanchions interfere with sight lines, but it's an American institution -- like Boston's Fenway -- that must be seen.

Now that doesn't mean I'll become a Cubs fan or move to Chicago anytime soon. New York loyalty and the cold and wind and snow of a Midwest winter will ensure that. But for a mid-summer weekend, it's a special place.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Campaign turn-off

The rhetoric in the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Thomas Kean Jr. isn't getting any better. Now they're disputing who didn't do enough to solve the state's budget crisis, as if they could have made a difference.

Kean is trying to link Menendez to the failure of Gov. Corzine and the legislative leadership -- all Democrats -- to hammer out a budget on time, which led to the shutdown of non-essential state government operations. But he doesn't mention that Menendez, as a U.S. senator, holds a federal office that has nothing to do with state government budgets.

Menendez is no better in arguing that Kean could have played a bigger role in the negotiations had he stayed on the state Senate Budget Committee rather than taking time off for his campaign. But he didn't tell listeners that the Democrats who run the Budget Committee didn't even invite the committee's Republicans to informal meetings on the budget, so whether Kean stayed on the committee was moot.

Here it's not even mid-July -- nearly four months before Election Day -- and these guys are doing everything to turn off voters. They're becoming the best advertisement yet for adopting the British system of six-week campaigns.

Monday, July 10, 2006

No time for an all-nighter

Among the many things that should not be lost about the state budget shenanigans last week is the silliness of the Senate passing the final document about 4:50 a.m. Saturday while the Assembly cleared it at 5:38 a.m. All-nighters are for college papers or test prepping, not for $31 billion budgets.

How deliberative could the process be for our 120 legislators when they get the figures in the middle of the night? How carefully could the most diligent among them study the many line items? So they have to rely on their party leaders to tell them what to do. That's unfair. Residents elected their district's legislators to represent them; they didn't vote for the political puppeteers with fancy titles like Senate president or minority leader or Assembly speaker or minority leader.

The Republicans are taking the lead with suggestions to reform the budget process. How about one to provide a five-day period between the introduction and final vote, to give legislators -- and the public -- a chance to fully study and question the budget? If it would diminish the party leaders' role, then so be it.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Simply excessive

The late Martin "Red" Gibson, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, wrote a textbook that deplored what he called "excessive elegance,'' fancy titles for common things. You see them all the time: medical center for hospital, media center for library, customer service representatives for bank tellers, sanitary engineers for trash collectors, and on and on.

I recalled Gibson's American Press Institute lecture about these terms while editing Friday's commentary by Carl Golden about the state's budget crisis. He noted that Gov. Corzine and the legislative leaders kept referring to a balance of "recurring revenues'' with "non-recurring revenues.'' As Golden wisely pointed out, that's a fancy way of saying taxes or increased fees vs. one-shots and gimmicks, or anything that doesn't say "tax.'' Thankfully, we didn't hear much about taxes as "revenue enhancers.''

The other evening, my hair stylist -- that's how my wife refers to my barber -- told me about losing one of her long-time customers. You see, he couldn't bring himself to having his hair cut at her latest shop, a beauty salon. What would Red Gibson say?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Frankly disgusting

Some people work very hard to become the world champion in baseball or kayaking or chess or Scrabble or anything that holds a competition to name the best. But hot dog eating? Well, Takeru Kobayashi of Japan has done it again. He's won the annual Independence Day hot dog eating contest on Coney Island for the sixth straight time.

I suppose it's good to win, but what he has to do is, well, sickening. He ate 53 3/4 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Eating 53 of anything is, well, sickening. And to consume an average of at least five frankfurters a minute is, well, sickening.

There must be a reason to do this. It's not the money. A quick Google check of stories yielded nothing about the prize, other than something about a Mustard Yellow International Belt. A belt? C'mon!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Failing to 'get it'

Here it is time for the July 4th holiday festivities, but that hasn't stopped our letter writers from expressing their opinions. The budget stalemate is the top story, with nearly all the writers voicing dismay at the lack of leadership in Trenton.

These writers "get it'' in ways the legislators do not: They want to see the budget balanced with more spending cuts, not with any new taxes -- however disguised. The lawmakers are lucky they don't face the public until November 2007. They hope that maybe by then, the electorate will forget about this leadership void. But from the tone of the letters, these folks aren't apt to forget.

Then there's Attorney General Zulima Farber's latest embarrassment for the Corzine administration involving her trooper-chauffeured appearance at a police checkpoint where her boyfriend was stopped for driving an unregistered vehicle. Somehow, the ticket was voided, although Farber says she had nothing to do with it. Again our writers "get it.'' They are astonished that Farber doesn't see that her mere presence influenced the outcome. It's another instance of a public official believing he or she is above the law, our writers say. That's a terrible thing to conclude about the state's top law enforcement official.