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Larry Benjamin's blog

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Gov. Corzine's demotion

The New Jersey Lottery folks have a giant case of the "Oops!'' It seems they messed up the title of the man who's their ultimate boss, Gov. Corzine. Holiday Lucky Times 10, a $2 scratch-off game, lists state and lottery officials on the back of each ticket. Corzine's name is OK, but he's described as "acting governor.'' Oops! That was last year with Richard J. Codey.

Demoting your boss on something with a distribution in the millions is probably not a wise career move. Nobody's in hot water, however, because the mistake was traced to the vendor who prints the tickets. But the proofreading process surely broke down. A spokesman said officials were too busy making sure the prize amounts and rules were letter perfect. That's good because an extra zero or two or more added to the prize would be rather costly. It wouldn't be brushed off as a harmless mistake then.

Monday, November 20, 2006

"Hey, mom, I'm food insecure''

Punch in the key words "U.S. Department of Agriculture'' and "hunger'' into a search engine and up pops an overview from the USDA's Economic Research Service called "Food Security in the United States.'' Not hunger, but food security. It's defined as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.'' All of us paid someone to come up with that definition and maybe even the term itself.

It was alarming to read that 11 percent of us were considered food insecure last year. Not hungry, but food insecure. Having spent a career in the communications business, I find this gobbledygook devised by bureaucrats pretty alarming, too. A seminar leader once referred to it as "excessive elegance.'' You know, media center (for library), medical center (hospital), bank customer service representative (teller), sanitary engineer (garbage collector), on and on.

It's clear the U.S. should declare war on people not having enough food to eat. But we should call it what it is: hunger. It's a powerful term that communicates. And isn't that what we should demand of all words?

Friday, November 17, 2006

The coach in demand

Now that his team is undefeated and ranked in the top 10 nationally, Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano is the hot coach in college football land. And the Rutgers faithful are worried they might lose the man who has guided the Scarlet Knights from the desert to the mountaintop. Funny thing, few people cared much about Schiano's next stop when his teams won only eight games in three seasons not long ago.

Schiano is part of a fraternity where "what have you done for us lately'' and the law of supply and demand rule. His recent success has put him in the enviable position of being the subject of rumors, if not feelers and offers. But he's not hurting financially. At $875,000 a year, he's undoubtedly the state's highest-salaried public employee. That's the highest salary among the eight Big East coaches, but almost half of the big-time college football coaches make even more. How much is enough?

Rutgers fans do have some things going for them in their hopes of retaining their coach. Schiano's a Jersey guy, from Bergen County. He's building a house not far from the football stadium. He says he's happy, has unfinished business and has no plans of leaving. Fans can only hope that he can resist temptation and stick to what he says.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Every day's a campaign

Lest you think the election campaign is over, think again. Included amid the advertising circulars and credit card solicitations in my mailbox Wednesday were pieces from state Sen. Ellen Karcher and Assemblyman Michael Panter asking for my household's input regarding property tax reform.

The brightly colored Karcher piece seemed a bit dated. It listed nine possible ways to reduce property taxes, along with space for other suggestions. It arrived on the very day that the four legislative committees studying the problem issued their recommendations, which touched on some of those nine ideas. Maybe the Karcher item has been sitting in some post office back room since soon after the committees were formed in July. The Panter letter was more up to date. It enclosed a card for requesting updates on the four topics under review.

Give the legislators credit: They realize that serving their constituents is not limited to the months preceding Election Day. It's a year-round job. But as you're shuffling through the mail, it seems as though the election season never ends.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The name game is over in Toms River

It was a long fight that started more than three decades ago, but the place everyone calls Toms River officially became Toms River Township when the name-change election results were certified Tuesday evening. The former name, Dover Township, was doomed because it was never a household word -- for its residents or anyone else. Sure, there's the East Dover section and various businesses use Dover in their name, but when pressed for a location, the answer was always "Toms River.'' And people didn't care that the Dover Township name dated to 1767, when the town was founded. That name now becomes the answer to a trivia question about Toms River.

Still, more than 10,000 voters didn't back the name change, claiming it was unnecessary and would be too expensive to change all those nameplates. But the advocates, from the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce and retirement communities, carried the day by an 8-to-5 margin. Now, they have to make sure the estimated $20,000 changeover costs don't get out of control. Luring new businesses -- no longer confused about why this Dover with its 95,000 population wasn't on any maps or directories but the 7,500-resident village of Toms River made them -- will more than make the change worthwhile. And finally, all the schools, sports leagues and shops don't have to add anything to their locale after Toms River.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

No extras for job well done

Sometimes legislative committees get it right. The members of the Senate Judiciary Committee did Monday when they dropped a proposal to direct 10 percent of the financial penalties in public corruption cases to the agency responsible for the conviction. The recommendation, from the Attorney General's Office, would be a way to direct more resources to law enforcement offices prosecuting corruption.

But wait. Isn't crimefighting what federal, state and county prosecutors are paid to do? They shouldn't angle for a cut of the action for their office. They're acting on behalf of the public, not themselves or their staffers. And who will mediate how to divvy up the corruption fine among the many law enforcement offices so often involved in one case? Fortunately, the senators understood the host of conflicts this idea involves and struck it from a broader anti-corruption bill. Let's hope it's the last we hear of it.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ethics on the stump

After losing three statewide races with campaigns attacking their Democratic opponents' ethics, state Republican Party leaders say they won't abandon ethics as a winning issue. Nor should they. There is plenty of evidence, from the local to the national level, that a candidate's character or misdeeds do matter to voters.

The Democrats finally landed a seat on the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders this year by reminding voters of the excesses of the all-Republican county administration. The county counsel's high fees and subsequent reappointment and the indictment of county officials in Operation Bid Rig were not forgotten by the voters. Across the country, Iraq was the key issue. But many voters turned to Democrats in response to the Abramoff lobbying indictments and scandals involving Republican officeholders.

Republican State Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. tried to link his opponent, Sen. Robert Menendez, to wrongdoing, but the voters didn't buy it. The allegations, as bad as they sounded, didn't lead to any sanctions. And Kean spent so much time attacking Menendez, he failed to present a winning portrait of himself and how he would better represent New Jerseyans. Ethics can take a candidate only so far.

RU Rah! Rah!

Who woulda thunk it! A Rutgers football team playing on national television tonight in a game with major bowl repercussions for their opponent (Louisville) -- and themselves. This is a school that won all of eight games in the first three years of Coach Greg Schiano's regime. This year, they're 8-0. In the lean years, Schiano basically said: give me better players using better facilities and I'll show you. Guess he was right.

Now everyone seems to be on the Rutgers football bandwagon. Senate President Richard J. Codey, the former acting governor, this week urged everyone to show their support by wearing scarlet and black today. How Codey, an unabashed Seton Hall basketball backer, can suddenly become a huge Rutgers football fan shows he's a man in search of a winning sports program, not a university. (Seton Hall doesn't have a football team.)

We'll see how the Scarlet Knights do in prime time. They lost to Louisville by a whopping 51 points on the road last year. Tonight, they have the home field and undoubtedly the largest football crowd ever on campus. They're ranked No. 13 in the bowl championship ratings, Louisville is No. 3. The game starts at 0-0. Rutgers fans can only hope for what was unthinkable not long ago.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A recipe for the NJ GOP

Is it any wonder the Republicans can't make headway in statewide elections? A quick look at Tuesday's results in the U.S. Senate race shows that Robert Menendez built up a 157,000-vote plurality over Thomas H. Kean Jr. from just three traditionally Democratic counties: Essex (70,000), Hudson (55,000) and Camden (32,000). Throw in Middlesex, Mercer, Bergen and Passaic, and that margin swells to 251,000. That's quite a gap for any candidate to overcome.

That obstacle has nothing to do with the gerrymandering of congressional or state legislative districts, which are drawn to protect incumbents. When it comes to running throughout the state, the GOP candidate has to do more than get his core supporters - usually conservatives - out to the polls. He or she has to attract independents, who outnumber voters affiliated with either major party and who, we learned Tuesday nationwide, want to be courted by candidates and not ignored in what one analyst called "this era of base politics.''

There is a center in American politics - people who look at candidates and issues unfiltered by a red or blue prism. The Republicans in New Jersey would do well to learn who they are and what they want - and craft a campaign to capture their loyalty.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The ethics committee charade

The ethics practiced by too many public officials in this state - or rather the lack of them - is an embarrassment. But the ethics committee that oversees the Legislature, with the grandiose title Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, is even more of an embarrassment, if that's possible.

This panel hadn't met for 17 months until Oct. 23 and then again Monday. But it still can't bring itself to get anything done. In October, it spent four hours debating who should be chairman. The latest hassling is over whether they promised to hold three meetings in November, with two Republicans saying they did and the director of the Office of Legisaltive Services saying they didn't. How incredibly childish. Meanwhile, any investigation of legislator shenanigans, namely Sen. Wayne R. Bryant's no-work job with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, goes undone.

The governor should pressure the legislative leaders, Senate President Richard J. Codey and Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., to say "enough already.'' It's well past time to fold up this committee and transfer its duties to the State Ethics Commission, which oversees the executive branch. It has a history of probing allegations of wrongdoing and fining, suspending and even removing state officials who stray. The Legislature deserves that kind of scrutiny. Its do-nothing ethics committee proves it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Campaign 'turf' from Europe

If you need a reminder of how closely Europeans follow the U.S. elections, the Press received 71 faxes over the weekend from letter writers - complete with home addresses and phone numbers. They all carried the same message: keep Congress out of the Democrats' hands to show continued support for the Bush administration. The majority came from France (21), Germany (16), the United Kingdom (13) and Ireland (11), with others from the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain and Italy.

I've been screening letters at the Press for nine years and have never seen so many letters from abroad. I wouldn't be surprised with e-mails, given how easy they are to transmit, but faxes? Editorial boards throughout the nation are sensitive to letter campaigns such as these, so often using the same format and wording and even the same e-mail address. We call them "turf,'' as they are artificial, not genuine, commentaries. For that reason, these letters from our new European friends won't see the light of day. But did they really expect that we would publish them?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Two wrongs ...

"Two wrongs do not make a right'' is an expression that applies yet again, this time in Asbury Park. Councilman James Keady was wrong for saying there are more than 200 members of the Bloods gang in Asbury in discussing recent shootings in the city with a New York television station. Nobody disputes the presence of gang members in the city, but putting such a high number on them - and Keady hasn't said where he got his figures - is irresponsible. It does nothing more than upset a community struggling with violence amid an oceanfront and downtown renaissance.

But the city's Urban Enterprise Zone board of directors went overboard in condemning Keady's remarks and calling for him to resign from the council and leave town. They said his statement will discourage businesses from locating in the city and people from visiting, which is what the UEZ was created to encourage. They forget that reports of the violence are more likely to undermine their mission. Sending Keady into exile won't make the city any safer and is likely to discourage city officials from taking stands on tough issues for fear they might upset one group or another. If the public believes Keady or any elected official has not served them well, they can let them know at the ultimate judgment place: the polling booth.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The money game

If you have any doubts about why public office is out of the reach of the common man, spending reports from this year's races for Congress and governor's seats provide the answer. You have to raise gobs of money. The latest total nationwide: $3.1 billion. And which race in which state is expected to lead the pack? The contest for U.S. Senate from good ol' New Jersey, with Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and his Republican opponent, state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., likely to together spend $28 million. Yet, candidates gleefully claim they're not beholden to the donors. Says who? All for a job that pays $162,100 a year.

It's all about getting the message out. Most of the money goes to TV, followed by direct mail. And what do the candidates get for all their advertising dollars? A public in New Jersey that's so turned off by politicians that more than half don't vote and even more wouldn't think of affiliating with a political party. But come Tuesday, enough people will exercise their cherished freedom to vote and elect one of these big spenders. I guess money talks . . . but does it have to be this way?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Reaching too high for rights

Sometimes a gadfly, someone who attends meetings to hold officials' feet to the fire, can go too far.

There's no reason why the state Supreme Court has to hear the case of a man from Pine Hill in Camden County who has already won the right to videotape town meetings but wants to do it his way. You'd think the high court had weightier matters to consider.

At issue is whether the borough can set guidelines that limit videotaping to just public officials. Audience members complained that they didn't like getting caught on tape, so the town imposed restrictions. Maybe those complainers were unnecessarily self-conscious. But the whole point of taping is to record the actions of public officials, not the crowd.

That gadfly, in pursuing endless appeals, is wasting borough money plus the time of all the lawyers involved. He's made his point. Nobody is stopping him from taping. Enough is enough.