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“It Ain’t Over Yet, There’s A Whole New Inquiry”: Christie’s Administration Is Facing Another Investigation

If after last week’s Bridgegate indictments you thought Chris Christie was finally done as the focus of government investigations, think again. The Republican governor’s administration in New Jersey is facing a whole new inquiry — this one involving hundreds of millions of dollars, and not just blocked-off bridge lanes.

At issue are the fees being paid by New Jersey’s beleaguered public pension system to Wall Street firms. In recent years, Christie’s officials have shifted more of the retirement savings of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other public workers into the hands of private financial firms. That has substantially increased the management fees paid by taxpayers to those firms. Indeed, while Christie says the pension system cannot afford to maintain current retirement benefits, pension fees paid to financial firms have quadrupled to $600 million a year — or $1.5 billion in total since he took office in 2010.

In recent months, details have emerged showing that Christie officials have directed lucrative pension management deals to some financial companies whose executives have made contributions to Republican groups backing Christie’s election campaigns. Additionally, Christie’s officials have admitted that they have not been fully disclosing all the fees the state has been paying to private financial firms.

Not surprisingly, this has made the trustees who oversee the state’s retirement system more than a little bit nervous — especially since the ever-higher fees have coincided with below-median returns for the state’s pension fund. So the trustees began asking questions, and when they didn’t get the answers they were looking for, they announced in April that they are launching a formal investigation of the matter.

Wayne Hall, the chairman of one of the state’s pension funds, told the Newark Star-Ledger that the new investigation is designed to help retirees understand why the state is paying so much.

“I’m a layman. I’m not on Wall Street. I’m not an investor, and I have 33,000 people that I answer to and they’re not investors either,” he told the newspaper. “Why are we paying that kind of money? When I see the exorbitant fees the state has been paying for the last couple of years, I have to question that.”

In their quest for better disclosure, Hall and his colleagues received a boost from an unlikely source: conservative activists. When it comes to pensions, those activists are often calling for benefit cuts, but when it comes to transparency, they are standing on the same side as the retirees.

“Both government workers and taxpayers deserve to know why such an incredible sum is being expended every year with the current system in deep crisis,” said Erica Klemens of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity. “These are dollars that could be funding the system and preventing the state’s pension hole from growing even deeper. The decision by the trustees to look into this matter is the right thing to do.”

You might assume that the conservative support was designed to set the stage for New Jersey’s Republican governor to cooperate with the investigation’s push for transparency. But no — quite the opposite.

Only days after prosecutors indicted his appointees in the Bridgegate affair, Christie vetoed a bipartisan anti-corruption bill designed to insulate the state’s pension system from undue political influence. One of that bill’s provisions would have forced the state to better disclose the fees being paid to politically connected Wall Street firms.

That leaves the trustees to try get to the bottom of what’s really happening at the state’s $80 billion pension fund. They may not have the governor’s bully pulpit, but thousands of retirees are relying on them to bring the truth out from the shadows.

 

By: David Sirota, Senior Writer at The International Business Times; The National Memo, May 8, 2015

May 10, 2015 Posted by | Chris Christie, New Jersey, Public Pension Funds | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Crossing A Constitutional Line”: Will The Supreme Court Let Florida Drug-Test All Its Government Employees?

It might seem reasonable that Florida’s governor Rick Scott wants to ensure all state agencies are drug-free workplaces; after all, why would you want your taxpayer money going to support the habit of some stoned, slothful bureaucrat? But what is the state really asking for when it demands that each public servant pee in a cup?

When Governor Scott issued an executive order for mandatory drug testing across the state’s entire public workforce in March 2011, the political logic seemed straightforward: “the State, as an employer, has an obligation to maintain discipline, health, and safety in the workplace.” But underlying that seeming moral obligation are some questionable social assumptions. What does a positive test mean when your economic fate hinges on the result? What kind of “discipline” is maintained by subjugating bodily privacy in the name of “public safety”?

Today the Supreme Court is weighing the constitutional question the policy has evoked: When your boss is the state, can the “drug-free workplace” be a Fourth Amendment free zone?

The Supreme Court is considering whether to take up Scott v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council (AFSCME) 79, to review whether the state can legitimately administer “drug testing in the absence of reasonable suspicion of drug use,” based on the state’s interest in ensuring a drug-free workplace for 85,000 state employees and applicants for state jobs.

Scott’s Supreme Court petition attempts to revive the issue following a series of lower-court defeats. AFSCME, representing tens of thousands of public servants, filed a legal challenge in May 2011 contending that the testing violated Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches, and that the state had offered no real safety-related reason for such a broad testing requirement. The union argues in its brief, “allowing the state to define its interests at such a high level of generality would create an exception that swallows the rule.”

The federal district court ruled in 2012 that the executive order was an unconstitutional violation of workers’ privacy and the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that decision. However, while the state has since suspended the policy (and a similar statute passed by the legislature has also been halted), it has been remanded to the lower court for further litigation to rework the mandate. The administration is now trying to revamp the mandate to apply to a narrower set of jobs—mirroring existing policies targeted to safety-related positions, like corrections officers.

The Supreme Court will conference on whether to take up the case or just let the lower-court sausage-making proceed. For now, the main outcome is the Eleventh Circuit’s decision that the original order was unacceptably broad, amounting to, in the words of the court, “a drug testing policy of far greater scope than any ever sanctioned by the Supreme Court or by any of the courts of appeals.”

Labor advocates don’t necessarily object to drug test policies for certain jobs based on specific work-related safety concerns. Rather, AFSCME objects to the sweeping mandate of drug testing the whole workforce and prospective future employees, screening the bodies of school bus drivers and museum ticket vendors alike, for anything from a meth habit to an occasional joint.

In its defense of the policy, the state points out that drug testing is already common in private sector workplaces. But civil libertarians note that the state, unlike a private firm, is bound by Fourth Amendment restrictions on unreasonable government searches.

On top of its crusade for a drug-free state payroll, Florida has also sought to clean up its welfare rolls with a policy of mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants. The law, enacted by the legislature in 2011, was ultimately struck down in federal court. But it also sparked a national outrage (and some notable satire), because it invoked the classic Reaganite trope of public aid recipients as undeserving miscreants looking to “game the system.” The stereotype has historically been reflected in the image of black “welfare queen,” or more recently, in the underworked, overpaid state bureaucrat. Nationwide, lawmakers have glommed onto this convenient political logic of drug-screening people involved with public assistance programs, with recent proposals for mandatory testing in Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington and other states.

Whether the urinalysis dragnet targets people seeking government support or those delivering public services, the presumptions underlying mandatory testing feed into the oppressive stigma of being tied to the public system, which in turn stokes public mistrust and backlash against government itself.

Shalini Goel Agarwal, an ACLU of Florida attorney who is working on the case, says that for welfare recipients, blanket drug-testing reflects “an assumption that if they’re relying on public benefits, must be because those folks are at fault in some way, it’s because they’re using drugs…. The facts don’t seem to bear out the stereotype, but there is this kind of villainization that’s going on.”

But despite Scott’s arbitrary drug-test mandate, Agarwal says, “The Fourth Amendment applies just as surely to poor people and just as surely to state employees as it does to anybody else.”

Historically, drug testing in both public and private workplaces has been controversial, not only because of its physical intrusiveness, but because it is often just inaccurate. Civil liberties groups point out the risk of botched results and false positives. Moreover, arbitrary surveillance of workers’ behavior through invasive tests can have a toxic impact on the workplace social environment.

In some cases, the data debunks the political rhetoric it was supposed to bolster. Advocates cite research data on welfare applicants suggesting that impoverished people actually live pretty clean: only about 2.5 percent of the applicants tested had positive results, compared to a rate of about 9 percent for the general population. Similarly, testing of employees and applicants at the state Departments of Transportation, Juvenile Justice, and Corrections showed positive results ranging from less than one percent to about 2.5 percent.

But whatever the data say, labor advocates argue that the state has crossed a constitutional line in both privacy and labor rights in its workplaces.

Many of the legal challenges to drug-test policies, Agarwal notes, have been led by unions, because “individual employees are scared to come forward, they’re scared for their own job security, they’re scared what’s going to happen to them and their families, and so they don’t come forward. And the only way effectively to get at this issue and to challenge the employers head on is to do it through the union.”

While labor has effectively resisted Florida’s effort to track drug use in its workforce, the draconian testing policy has exposed the government’s problem with data abuse. The behavioral policing of workers and the poor tells us little about their social values, but reveals much about how supposed “public safety” interests at the center of power can become a tool for invading bodily privacy at the social margins.

 

By: Michelle Chen, The Nation, April 18, 2014

April 21, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, Rick Scott | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Racing To the Bottom In Michigan”: And A Fine “Happy Holidays” To Michigan Workers Too

It won’t be formal until next Tuesday (thanks to a five-day delay requirement for bills passed by both Houses), but the Michigan legislature has indeed approved “right-to-work” legislation in a lame-duck session blitzkrieg of enormous audacity. There were no hearings, no public debate, and virtually no warning before the famously pro-labor state joined the Greater South in declaring itself union-unfriendly territory, as Gov. Rick Snyder abruptly reversed his prior opposition to consideration of such legislation. That very day the hammer came down in a series of votes.

One of the right-to-work bills (the one affecting public-sector workers) passed the Michigan House by a 58-52 margin, just one vote below the number of Republicans who will serve in the next session. This reinforces the impression that GOpers feared they wouldn’t have to votes to enact right-to-work had they utilized the normal legislative process and waited until representatives elected on November 6 were in place.

The panic-stricken nature of the GOP coup wasn’t much reflected in the bland and empty public rationales offered for it by Snyder:

In an interview with The Associated Press, Snyder said he had kept the issue at arm’s length while pursuing other programs to bolster the state economy. But he said circumstances had pushed the matter to the forefront.

“It is a divisive issue,” he acknowledged. “But it was already being divisive over the past few weeks, so let’s get this resolved. Let’s reach a conclusion that’s in the best interests of all.”

Also influencing his decision, he said, were reports that some 90 companies had decided to locate in Indiana since that state adopted right-to-work legislation. “That’s thousands of jobs, and we want to have that kind of success in Michigan,” he said.

OMG, Indiana’s screwing its workers, so Michigan has to do the same right now! This is very literally a “race to the bottom” if ever there has been one.

Because Republican legislators shrewdly attached an appropriation to the bill, it will not be subject to reversal by initiative. Looks like November 2014 will be the first opportunity for some accountability, when the entire legislature is up for re-election, along with Snyder.

The Michigan Senate’s Democratic Leader, Gretchen Whitmer, had a tart description of the entire manuever:

“These guys have lied to us all along the way,” she said. “They are pushing through the most divisive legislation they could come up with in the dark of night, at the end of a lame-duck session and then they’re going to hightail it out of town. It’s cowardly.”

And a fine “happy holidays” to Michigan workers, too.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, December 7, 2012

December 8, 2012 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Michigan, A Right-to-Work State?”: Purely Political, Motivated By A Desire To Punish Supporters Of The Democratic Party

Labor never ruled Michigan as such. It may have been home to the best and biggest American union, the United Auto Workers, but even at the height of their power, the UAW could seldom elect its candidates to Detroit city government. Still, the UAW dominated the state’s Democratic Party and much of state politics for decades—at least, until the auto industry radically downsized.

Just how downsized union power has become is apparent from the decision of the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, to support a right-to-work bill that began speeding its way through the state’s lame-duck GOP-controlled legislature on Thursday. Should the bill become law—and given Republican control of state government, it’s hard to envision how it won’t—Michigan would join historically more conservative Indiana as the second state from the industrial Midwest to move to right-to-work status. Until last year, when Indiana enacted its statute, right-to-work states were confined to the South, the Plains states and the Mountain West—states devoid of a major union presence. That such laws are now coming to the industrial Midwest is just more evidence of the continual weakening of industrial unions—the unions that have taken the most direct hit from offshoring and mechanization.

But why enact such laws when most unions are no longer big enough to take any bite out of company profits? In fact, the pressure for such laws isn’t coming from companies like Ford or GM, which can how hire new union workers for half of what they pay their more veteran workers. It’s purely political. Weakened though they be in the economic arena, unions still punch well above their weight at election time. That’s one reason why President Obama carried every state in the industrial Midwest save (almost) perpetually Republican Indiana.

And if anyone doubts that politics lies behind the Michigan Republicans’ decision to enact a right-to-work bill, consider one of the bill’s particulars: the only unions it exempts from the bill’s coverage, the Wall Street Journal is reporting, are police and firefighter unions. Snyder said that the GOP had carved out that exception because their jobs needed protection from labor strife.

Think about that for a moment. The effect of the Republicans’ exemption would be to ensure police and firefighters have the strongest unions in the state, the ones most capable of taking job actions when they sought to better their pay and working conditions. Elsewhere across the U.S. today, states and cities are trying to scale back pensions and other benefits of their employees, and police and firefighters are often targeted because their pay and benefits exceed those of other public workers. Moreover, historically, governors and mayors have been wary of the power of such unions—Republican governors and mayors in particular. Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge first came to the nation’s attention by breaking a Boston police strike in 1919—“There is no right to strike against the public safety,” he proclaimed. It was his strikebreaking that won him a place on the 1920 Republican ticket.

Now, however, Snyder, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has created a police-and-firefighter carve out. The reason is purely political—in Michigan, as in Wisconsin, the police and firefighter unions often support Republicans for state and local office, and Republicans want to make sure that they’ll continue to do so with undiminished clout. The carve-out, said Michigan House Democratic leader Tim Greimel, “makes it very clear that this is not about sound economic policy. It’s motivated by a desire to punish supporters of the Democratic Party.”

 

By: Harold Meyerson, Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect, December 7, 2012

December 8, 2012 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Self Interest At The Highest”: Romney And Ryan’s Disdain For The Working Class

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate underscores the central question posed by this campaign: Should cold selfishness become the template for our society, or do we still believe in community?

Romney wanted the election to be seen as a referendum on the success or failure of President Obama’s economic policies. Instead, he has revealed that the campaign is really a choice between two starkly different philosophies. One could be summed up as: “We’re all in this together.” The other: “I’ve got mine.”

This is not about free enterprise, and it’s not about personal liberty; those fundamental principles are unquestioned. But for at least the past 100 years, we have understood capitalism and freedom to exist within a larger context — a complicated, real-world, human context. Some people begin life at a disadvantage, and it’s in the national interest to open doors of opportunity for them. Some people make mistakes, and it’s in the national interest to create second chances. Some people are too young, too old or too infirm to care for themselves, and it’s in the national interest to secure their welfare.

This sense of the balance between individualism and community fueled the American Century. Romney and Ryan apparently don’t believe in it.

It is well known that Ryan, at least for most of his career, has been enamored of the ideas of Ayn Rand, the novelist (“Atlas Shrugged,” “The Fountainhead”) whose interminable books tout self-interest as the highest, noblest human calling and equate capitalist success with moral virtue. Ryan now disavows Rand’s worldview, primarily because she was an atheist, but he lavishly praised her ideas as recently as 2009.

What about Romney? While he has never pledged allegiance to the Cult of Rand, his view of society seems basically the same.

At least three times in recent days, as part of his response to President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” peroration, Romney has told campaign audiences variations of the following: “When a young person makes the honor roll, I know he took a school bus to get to the school, but I don’t give the bus driver credit for the honor roll.”

When he delivered that line in Manassas on Saturday with Ryan in tow, Romney drew wild applause. He went on to say that a person who gets a promotion and raise at work, and who commutes to the office by car, doesn’t owe anything to the clerk at the motor vehicles department who processes driver’s licenses.

What I hear Romney saying, and I suspect many others will also hear, is that the little people don’t contribute and don’t count.

I don’t know whether Romney’s sons ever rode the bus to school. I do know that for most parents, it matters greatly who picks up their children in the morning and drops them off in the afternoon.

It may not be the driver’s job to help with algebra homework, but he or she bears enormous responsibility for safely handling the most precious cargo imaginable. A good bus driver gets to know the children, maintains order and discipline, deals with harassment and bullying. Romney may not realize it, but a good driver plays an important role in ensuring a child’s physical and emotional well-being — and may, in fact, be the first adult to whom the child proudly displays a report card with all A’s.

School bus drivers don’t make a lot of money. Nor, for that matter, do the clerks who help keep unqualified drivers and unsafe vehicles off the streets. But these workers are not mere cogs in a machine designed to service those who make more money. They are part of a community.

The same is true of teachers, police officers, firefighters and others whom Romney and Ryan dismiss as minions of “big government” rather than public servants.

And what do the Republicans offer their supposed heroes, the entrepreneurs who start small businesses? The few who succeed wildly would be rewarded with tax cuts so huge that they, like Romney, might one day have a dressage horse competing in the Olympics. Most of those who just manage to scrape by, or whose businesses fail, could look forward to only as much health care in their senior years as they are able to afford, and not one bit more.

This is a campaign Democrats should relish. The United States became the world’s dominant economic, political and military power by recognizing that we are all in this together. School bus drivers, too.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, August 13, 2012

August 15, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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