A look for highlights among the year’s 260 Press editorials immediately found 2019 starting with the consuming political story that would end it.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew made a splash among freshman congressmen in January’s first House session by fulfilling his pledge to not support Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Then he broke with his party again to call for Democrats to negotiate with Republicans to end the partial government shutdown — in an interview with a Fox business journalist. We said it “might be the perfect time for a solutions-focused centrist” and we still think Congress needs more of those when Americans are ready for them. Time will tell if he remains one now that he’s been pushed out by the Democrats and has become a Republican.
As a bill eventually raising New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15 an hour advanced in the Legislature, we advocated accommodations for South Jersey’s tourism and farming industries that depend on seasonal, unskilled workers. The final bill that became law included such accommodations, which at least allow more time to adjust to an altered labor marketplace.
Also in January, the N.J. Supreme Court reversed an appellate court decision and expanded the opportunities for drug court graduates to erase their criminal histories. Society needs nonviolent, low-level offenders to become law-abiding citizens, so we also hope Gov. Phil Murphy signs a bill soon that will allow graduates to pursue careers in the casino industry.
In March, the Jersey Shore got its first look at possibilities for fixing back-bay flooding in an era of slowly rising sea levels. The first phase of the state and federal study said mega-structures such as inlet gates, floodwalls and levees could be effective in many places, but not all. Solutions will be expensive so people should pay attention — patiently, since other approaches like using natural features and acquiring properties will also be evaluated.
The state Board of Public Utilities in April approved subsidies up to $300 million for the three nuclear power plants in South Jersey over objections by the state Ratepayer Advocate’s Office and others. The need for the plants to meet planned reductions in global-warming emissions was clearer than the plant owners’ need for the subsidies.
West Wildwood gave shore tourism a black eye in May. The state Local Finance Board imposed a record fine of $24,500 against its mayor, Christopher Fox, for a long list of ethics violations — and second-home owners who lack a vote in municipal elections will continue to pay the consequences. Offenses included actions he took that benefited his daughter and Police Chief Jacqueline Ferentz, with whom he lives; voting in favor of giving himself police oversight days before reinstating Ferentz and naming her chief; and giving Ferentz back pay and pension credit for time she didn’t serve and voting to increase her salary 50%. Then the borough hired his daughter as a full-time police officer.
A consistent, statewide ban on single-use plastic bags advanced in the Legislature in June as the number of municipal bans increased to 27. But at year’s end, it’s still stalled.
In July, the BPU named Ørsted to build New Jersey’s first offshore wind farm and start a dramatic transformation of energy production in the state. The company will place 90 of the world’s newest and largest wind turbines more than a dozen miles off Atlantic City, producing enough electricity for 500,000 homes.
The same month also saw Atlantic City Residents for Good Government canvassing the city with a petition to change local government to a council/manager form. The city’s decades of under-performance and too-frequent corruption make it clear that substantial improvement is possible. In December, the group submitted petitions with more than 3,000 signatures of residents, setting up a vote early in the new year.
A court decision on the attempt by residents of Seaview Harbor to flee Egg Harbor Township for Longport and its much lower taxes was expected soon as summer ended, but still hasn’t arrived. If the court doesn’t uphold the township’s objection to the secession because of harm to its residents, the precedent would create a rush to expand tax havens across the state. In South Jersey alone, past rejections have included attempts to join Avalon and Wildwood Crest.
In September, Gov. Phil Murphy and his attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, escalated their misguided war against law enforcement cooperation involving illegal immigrants. They ordered Cape May and Monmouth counties to quit their long-running 287(g) programs that help county jails cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement to protect the public from criminally charged or convicted immigrants here illegally.
In a positive development that month, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority designated Village Super Market Inc. — which owns and operates 30 ShopRites — to develop and operate a planned 40,000-square-foot store in Atlantic City.
In October, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr.’s disastrous term was mercifully cut short after he pleaded guilty in federal court to felony wire fraud. He stole $87,000 from a youth basketball league. He became the city’s sixth corrupt mayor forced from office since the 1970s, irrefutable proof that something’s rotten there.
South Jersey had the most interesting legislative race in November’s election and delivered the biggest change in the state. 1st District voters elected Republicans Sen. Sen. Michael Testa Jr. and Assemblymen Erik Simonsen and Antwan McClellan, replacing incumbent Democrats Bob Andrzejczak, Bruce Land and Matthew Milam.
Next door, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson rode his long record of prudent fiscal policy and working to broaden the local economy to easy re-election and the start of his third decade in office.
Voting at all levels was destabilized by the last minute mandate by the Legislature and Gov. Murphy to send mail-in ballots to tens of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of people who didn’t request them. Stressed election officials made errors, vote counts took far too long, poll results were overturned by large numbers of mailed votes and results were challenged. The Democrats’ mail-vote push was subsequently declared an unfunded mandate and voided.
November also saw Jim Johnson, the governor’s excellent special counsel on Atlantic City, leave to become corporate counsel of New York City.
The state election led to the usual overactive lame duck session in Trenton in December.
Senate President Steve Sweeney pushed through an end-run around the school tax cap for about 40 districts that lost state aid, allowing them increases above 2% for five years up to a budget level the state deems adequate. Republicans criticized the waiver and so did Murphy, who hasn’t signed it yet.
A bill to end religious exemptions from the requirement that public schoolchildren be vaccinated passed the Assembly but fell a vote short in the Senate for now. New Jersey would have become the sixth state to allow only medical exemptions, the sound public health policy urged by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A new law created a limited driver’s license (not a secure identification) available to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants residing in the state illegally. They’ll need auto insurance and to take written and road exams to get one, so the roads may become a bit safer.
Instead of decriminalizing marijuana to end excessively harsh enforcement and deprive the legalization effort of a campaign issue, legislators put legal marijuana on the ballot for next year and kept pushing to create a harmful but lucrative new drug industry.
Finally, after nearly a century of covering Miss America (and even giving the pageant its name), The Press was excluded from covering this year’s businesslike competition by the ardent reformers who took control of the organization a couple of years ago and took it out of town again. The audience for the show last week fell another 17% to an all-time low.