Legislation in the months leading up to a New Jersey election deserves at least a suspicion that it’s more motivated by getting votes than improving government. Three bills under consideration are straightforwardly good enough that they should be enacted.
Two are practical improvements to existing procedures. The other seems born of N.J.-style politics and probably owes its timing to the fall election — but it serves the public’s right to know, and we welcome it regardless of its origin.
The simplest of the three bills changes how property-tax relief is delivered by the Senior Freeze program. Instead of the current practice of qualifying senior citizens paying their property taxes and getting rebate checks from the state, the benefit would be turned into a tax credit that reduces their property taxes. That would leave the money with the seniors and spare the state the cost of writing rebate checks.
This sounds obvious enough that it should have been done before, and indeed it was. The Christie administration previously converted the Homestead Benefit from a rebate to a tax credit. Doing the same for the Senior Freeze should happen soon.
The second bill is just as sensible and also sounds overdue. It would allocate funds to counties for preparations to minimize storm damage based on their risk for catastrophic storms.
Preparing for hurricanes and storm surges where they’re likely to occur seems sure to direct more emergency preparedness money to the Jersey Shore, where it belongs.
The bill, which passed the Legislature unanimously toward the end of last month and awaits the governor’s signature, would require the state to assess county storm risks every two years. The 11 criteria for that — including such things as past disaster declarations, total assessed property and coastline length — could be weighted to favor any of New Jersey’s 21 counties, but we’re confident storm risks will be reasonably judged and result in more funding for Atlantic, Cape May, Ocean and Cumberland counties.
The third bill would prohibit confidential agreements to settle whistleblower lawsuits by public workers against public agencies. That would stop government officials from settling allegations they acted illegally or improperly just to keep the public from finding out about them.
The case behind this legislation began in 2009, early in the Christie administration, with the indictments of the Hunterdon County sheriff and two others in her department on charges they failed to conduct proper background checks, made employees sign loyalty oaths and provided a Christie campaign donor with a false law-enforcement badge. The state Attorney General’s Office took over the case and found the charges were legally deficient. A state judge agreed and dismissed the indictments.
An assistant county prosecutor who presided over the investigation was suspended and then dismissed after questioning the attorney general’s actions. He sued the state under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, reaching a confidential settlement that paid him $1.5 million and cost taxpayers nearly another $4 million for the state’s defense.
Any or all parts of this saga — the original investigation, indictments, state takeover of the case, dropping the indictments, complaints by the assistant prosecutor and the whistleblower lawsuit — may have been politically motivated. If the ban on confidential settlements is enacted, it wouldn’t apply to this one. But the new governor who takes office next year could decide to unseal the Hunterdon settlement.
The bill passed the Assembly unanimously on March 23. We hope the Senate does likewise and the governor signs it into law. Requiring whistleblower settlements to remain open would ensure the public gets the details on allegations against government officials and can evaluate whether settlements are justified.
That would be more than taxpayers often get for political infighting that costs millions of their dollars.