Sunday, April 26, 2015

Pensions in the Age of GOP Math

Things are getting a bit complicated in New Jersey for Governor Christie, and that's having a major effect on when (and it will be when) he announces his bid for the presidency. Yes, he is waiting for the economy to improve and the George Washington Bridge scandal to go away, but now he's added what could be a signature accomplishment for him to run on: another public employee pension reform bill. This time, however, he won't have as many Democrats to help him.

Christie has been traveling the state telling some marvelous half-truths ant outright lies about the history of governmental pension neglect since the 1990s. He's even saying that the legislature is blocking pension funding when it's actually the good governor who took out the full funding from the 2015 budget with a line-item veto. When the legislature then passed a bill to have the state pay quarterly payments, he vetoed it and the Republicans who supported it the first time around would not vote to override. At a legislative dinner in March, State Senator Joe Pennacchio (District 26) was asked why that happened. His answer: "Christie is going to run for president. We didn't want to embarrass him."

So much for fiscal responsibility.

Now comes word that State Senate President Stephen Sweeney is saying the the legislature will include a full pension payment in the 2016 budget, which starts on July 1. That battle will define the struggle for the next two months, but Christie will veto anything that even smells of a tax increase or else he's going to be burnt toast in Iowa and South Carolina. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousand of public employees will have to sweat it out and worry that the pensions they've been promised will not be paid in full. And they've been making their payments reliably their whole careers.

But even if Christie doesn't win the nomination, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is now attracting gobs of Koch Brother money for his campaign, would be an even worse choice. He's been able to do what Christie has not when it comes to public employees, and that's to strip them of their collective bargaining rights. Imagine the nightmare scenario of a President Walker with a Republican Congress slashing taxes for the wealthy and slashing public programs and benefits for the middle class. Never mind that the number of working people who qualify for public assistance has increased in the last 10 years. The GOP loves to blame those lazy burger-flipping door-greeters (because many have two jobs) for their own problems while catering to the upper crust.

Blaming public workers and the working poor for America's fiscal problems has worked well for the GOP. It's time to fight back.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

CCRAP! More Testing Ahead

If you're a regular American, you know, like the kind of person Hillary Clinton is trying to appeal to, you probably think that the PARCC tests are over and that the education system has moved on.

Not so.

This week marks the return of the standardized tests that no one likes, and are based on the Common Core standards that are unpopular across the political spectrum. And since the federal government has given schools until early May to give the tests, schools across the country will be testing for the next four weeks. Never mind that there are precious few weeks of instruction left in the academic year, especially in the South, or that Advanced Placement tests are administered during the first two weeks of May. PARCC tests must be given and school districts must stop everything in order to meet the testing mandate.

The effects on schools have been profound. Students have missed, and will miss more academic classes, extra-help sessions, Advanced Placement test reviews, band practices and basic skills instruction. In most schools, the tests are taken in the library, which makes that resource unavailable for part or all of the school day. In other schools, the entire academic day stops for the tests and some districts have prohibited homework for the duration of the administration. This is not efficient education.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire where the GOP had its first substantive discussions about presidential policy, Ted Cruz is promising to obliterate the Common Core, Chris Christie is blaming his predecessor for the standards, Bobby Jindal is running away from the standards despite  promoting them two years ago, and Jeb Bush, who supports the Common Core, is not mentioning that fact because the GOP base hates them. Hillary hasn't said much, but she can bide her time and let the Republicans fight amongst themselves.

My sense is that the Common Core standards will survive because most educational publishers and programs, such as the AP, have modified their curricula to mirror the standards. In and of themselves, the standards are beneficial and having national benchmarks will allow us to compare our students across the United States and with students from other countries. State standards might reflect local priorities, but we live in a global world and economy. Students need to be proficient in specific content and academic skills and, quite honestly, not all states are proficient at delivering them.

In addition, not all states and localities can afford to implement programs that students need. Federal involvement in education is a point of contention in many areas, but without equality of resources we can't have equality of outcomes. And that's what we desperately need.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hillary Joins. Chris Will Have to Wait.

As Hillary Clinton makes the announcement that most people expected, and many more enthusiastically endorse, the main question on my mind today is...

Where's Chris?

After all, we now have Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Hillary firmly and officially in the presidential race and I'm sure that Scott Walker and Jeb Bush will join the April frenzy. But Chris Christie? He is nowhere to be found on the national stage, preferring instead to hold town hall meetings in friendly New Jersey towns where he can argue with teachers and try to defend his ghastly deal with Exxon and be applauded for not hiking taxes on the wealthy.

The governor has some real problems, and they will complicate his expected (at least by me) run for president. These will cause him to delay his announcement until perhaps June, forcing him to miss out on some early money and a good deal of momentum, which, admittedly, he could make up, but it just makes his job that much more difficult.

First up is the Monday announcement concerning the George Washington Bridge scandal that has engulfed his administration and has exposed him and his minions as political hacks (a compliment in New Jersey). There will certainly be a good deal of negative coverage about Christie's handling of the traffic jam which he'll need to defend, then make sure it's all gone away before he can return to national themes.

Next is the sorry state of the New Jersey economy, which continues to lag behind other states
and is foiling Christie's best efforts at acting like a true Republican-supply-side-Reaganite by cutting taxes. One of the things he has decided to cut is the state's required public employee's pension payment. He's presently being sued by a number of public employee unions and a New Jersey court has already ruled that the state must make full payments. The problem is that the state doesn't have the money because Christie's New Jersey Comeback hasn't quite taken shape.

And the issue that contributed the most to his reelection in 2013, the state's recovery from Sandy, is also turning sour as thousands of New Jersey residents are finding that the governor who promised them relief and their homes back in 2013 is not able to make good on those promises. Many shore towns are still devastated and residents are being told one thing by the government and another by their insurance companies. It's not good news.

The upshot to all of this is that Governor Christie will not be able to turn to the business of running for president until the above issues resolve themselves in a manner that's favorable to his political arguments. And then there's the matter of those pesky conservatives who don't like him because he's not their kind of conservative and besides, he hugged Obama in 2012 and the far right will never forget that. He's still a formidable politician, but he's not really part of the conversation at a time when he needs to be in the news.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Corporate America Hangs a Left

All of the tension that's been building in the grand Republican coalition, that uneasy mix of practical business, low taxes, libertarianism and the uncompromising religious sector is now being released. And it's not working out for the most conservative of the party's members.

Just a week ago it seemed that at least two new states, Indiana and Arkansas, would pass religious freedom laws that would, in essence, allow people to claim that a robust religious objection to a state or federal law was enough to nullify it, at least for the objector. By the end of the week, both states had to backtrack and add key provisions that did not allow religious people from discriminating against gays and lesbians, among others. Why the change?

Corporations. Walmart. Angie's List. Axium.

Big business has seen the light and it's a bright one. No, not the one that people who have near-death experiences talk about. This is the one that shines into the deep dark corners of discrimination, hatred and prejudice.  Yes, corporations do love they money, but they're also getting a bit of a soul. After all, corporations are people too, right?

But uncovering the cloistered minds of the far right isn't the only move forward. Major national businesses are also starting to...wait for it...raise wages. Yes, I know that it's only a dollar more an hour for now, but the prospect of rising wages for those most in need is a positive step.

Despite a conservative movement that's made great inroads into American political, economic and social culture, the basic democratic ideals of tolerance, respect for diversity and fairness have endured and are now beginning to emerge from an era where they were somewhat battered and bruised. Americans truly want a government that will stay out of its bedrooms and workplaces even as they want to make sure that there is a safety net for life's perplexities.

This is why I think the GOP will end up nominating another more moderate candidate in 2016. That won't make the conservatives happy, but it really is the best hope for the party. And the Democrats had better not take their supporters for granted. The economy is better, but job growth seems to have slowed and the deal with Iran is not a slam dunk, nor should it be.

For now, though, business seems to be on the side of a wider, more inclusive market. And that's good news.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest