Monday, February 27, 2006

Lighter than usual blogging this week

Yeah, I know. Both of you are saying to yourselves, how could he possibly blog less?

Simple. I'm traveling for work. We have customers who need to be contacted, and it must be done in person. It's a tough, dirty job, but someone's got to do it.

in Hawaii! I'm sitting in my Waikiki hotel room with the sliding glass doors open and the cool evening breeze blowing the scent of flowers into my room.

Have fun in sunny Jersey, kids!

Tags: Travel, Not in Jersey

Saturday, February 25, 2006

State Tax Collections

Paul Nelson of NJ Fiscal Folly pointed out a very interesting site to me today. The state legislature's Office of Legislative Services puts out a periodic Revenue Snapshot to document collections and compare them to the budget. In the latest report (from December), we see that

With December revenue collections again outpacing expected growth rates, it appears likely that revenue estimates for Fiscal Year 2006 will be revised upward later this Spring. The magnitude of the upward revision will depend upon important revenue collections in January and April. Eleven of the 14 major State revenues that
the OLS tracks each month are reporting growth rates above what would be needed to reach year end certified targets. Of the State's largest revenues, only the sales tax is under performing expectations at this time.

A little bit more detailed look at the numbers shows that the state has collected nearly $530 million more than it had budgeted through the first six months of the year - $61 for each and every one of the 8.7 million people in our state.
This money does not "belong" to the state. The government should not treat this as found money, and plan to spend it. Unfortunately, it looks like that's exactly what they will do.

Tags: Jersey, Taxes

What Pizza Topping are You?

This post is dedicated to Jim, who can't think of anything to blog about today.

You scored -27 flavor!
Sometimes I like you; sometimes I don't.

My test tracked 1 variable How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 25% on flavor
Link: The What Pizza Topping Am I? Test

Tags: Quizzes, Pizza

Saturday, February 18, 2006

NJ SCC Annual Report III

Every time I look at the NJ Schools Construction Corporation annual report, I get more and more perturbed. Here's another interesting fact I extracted from the data, showing what a serious problem we have.
The average school construction project for the 2004-05 school year took 17.9 months, which sounds pretty reasonable. Break them down by what organizations managed them, however, and the difference is startling. The 355 projects managed by the districts averaged 17.1 months to complete, while the 24 projects completed by SCC took an average of 29.4 months. That's more than a year longer than the locally managed jobs. The table below lays out the average project length (in months) by completion date.

Year Month Districts SCC Grand Total
2004 Jul 13.1 29.3 13.7

Aug 16.2 28.5 17.3

Sep 19.2 26.1 20.9

Oct 21.8

Nov 17.0 28.6 18.8

Dec 18.9 29.5 19.6
2005 Jan 11.5 31.4 12.0

Feb 17.9 30.1 18.5

Mar 16.3

Apr 18.9 33.1 19.3

May 17.9 42.8 18.5

Jun 19.3 31.7 21.5
Grand Total
17.1 29.4 17.9

So, not only is NJ SCC incapable of estimating or controlling costs, but it apparently is also incapable of completing its jobs in a reasonable amount of time.

The SCC must be closed. The people of New Jersey have poured far too much money into this sink hole.

Tags: Jersey, Taxes, Education, NJSCC

NJ SCC Annual Report II

In a comment to my first post on this subject, Joe says:

Just think most of the work done on the schools is by non union contractors. I'll bet if they were done by union contractors they would be done faster and cheaper.
Either Joe has an extremely dry wit, or he is simply uninformed. You see, New Jersey practically requires the use of union labor on school construction projects funded by the SCC. This is done through a mandate for Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). According to he SCC web site:
On January 18, 2002 Governor McGreevey signed Executive Order 1, which provides that:

On a project-by-project basis, a state department, authority, or instrumentality shall include a PLA in a public works project where it has been determined that the agreement advances the state's interests of cost efficiency, quality, safety, timeliness, skilled labor force, labor stability, and the state's policy to advance minority and women-owned businesses.

On July 30, 2002 Governor McGreevey signed legislation that authorizes the use of Project Labor Agreements on major public works projects.
These PLAs do nothing but add costs to a project. For example, they require each contractor and sub-contractor to have a registered apprentice program, driving up the contractor's labor cost by making him hire untrained people. PLAs also specify whom the contractor must hire:
A PLA must require the contractor to provide "whatever resources necessary" to prepare for the apprenticeship of the number of women and minorities as set forth in the publicly available plan.
On top of the PLA requirement, New Jersey also requires that contractors pay the "prevailing wage" to their employees on public projects. The prevailing wage is typically set at whatever rate the unions demand (emphasis added):
The Act requires the payment of minimum rates of pay to laborers, craftsmen and apprentices employed on public works projects. Covered workers must receive the appropriate craft prevailing wage rate as determined by the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development. Prevailing wage rates are wage rates based on the collective bargaining agreements established for a particular craft or trade
If they fail to do so, then they are debarred from bidding on any public project in the state. The current list of debarred firms runs 20 pages.

Just how expensive is this? Let's look at a single job - new construction painting. Imagine a job where you need four painters for two and a half (8-hr) days to knock out the work, or a total of 80 hours of actual work. According to the Burlington County prevailing wage rates (pages 40-41), a Journeyman painter must be paid $45.30 an hour (including $13.25 in benefits). The contractor must also pay social security taxes of 6.2% on the labor rate, driving his total cost to $47.29 per hour, or $3,782 for the job.
But that's not all. The state requires all contractors to have apprentice programs as noted above, and in the prevailing wage determination (page 68) sets the ratio of apprentices required. For painters, it's 1:4, so on this job we have to add an apprentice. His rate is also set in the same document (page 65), and for a mid-level apprentice (1.5 years) its 70% of the journeyman's wage, or $31.71, plus $6.27 in benefits, plus $1.97 for social security - $39.95 per hour, or $799 for the 20-hour duration of the job. The apprenticeship requirement is, in effect, a 21% increase in project cost.

What would this project cost if the prevailing wage and PLA requirements were not in place? The lowest possible cost would be the minimum wage, currently $6.15 per hour, plus the 6.2% social security tax. That would set the labor cost at $522. Now, on a new construction project, I don't want a crappy job, so I would want to hire someone with some skill and experience. If I was willing to pay three times the minimum wage for this work, it would cost $1,567 to get the job done. I don't know if those are reasonable rates, so I checked craigslist in the Philly area and found an independent "Professional painter/paperhanger looking to stay busy." He claims thirty years experience, has his own equipment, is fully insured and is willing to work as a subcontractor. His rate: $25/hr. If I hire him as a sub (letting him pay his own social security out of his quoted rate) to do my hypothetical job, this painter would cost me about $2,000.

Non-union subcontractor at $2,000, or meet the PLA and prevailing wage requirements for $4,581. Which is more cost effective, Joe?

Tags: Jersey, Taxes, Education, NJSCC

Friday, February 17, 2006

NJ Schools Construction Corporation Annual Report

[Welcome, Carnival riders! If you find this post enlightening, there's more here and here].

The New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation has published its annual report to the governor and legislature. Paul Nelson of NJ Fiscal Folly provides a nice, simple summary of the document: We're All Doomed, Doomed I Tell You!

Painfully, I've read the whole thing. It's not pretty, but the $12.8 billion cost widely quoted in the press is nothing more than a fantasy. The details of this fantasy start on page 77 of the report, but here's the game they are playing:
Step 1: Take the January 2005 construction cost estimates (CCEs) from the project management firms (PMFs) and add 7.5% escalation for the age of the estimates
Step 2: Add a further 15% "contingency"
Step 3: Add 2% to the design fees to account for restarting the work that was stopped
Step 4: Add 1-1.5% for permit fees, plus 0.25% for "other miscellaneous fees"
Step 5: Add 0.5% for temporary space.
Step 6: Add 2% for Schools Construction Corporation overhead.
Here's a real killer: "PMFs are compensated based on a percentage of the CCE of projects that they are managing." In other words, the PMFs are incentivized to generate construction cost estimates that are as high as possible.
So, in summary, an artificially inflated construction cost estimate is then further inflated by nearly 30%.
After establishing a nice, high baseline, SCC then moves to scare us into buying in now rather than later. They take the baseline, and further inflate it for two ridiculous cases -- waiting five or ten years to start the same projects. They apply an annual 7.5% inflator to the construction costs, and 15% inflation to the land acquisition costs. From page 81:

The proposed 15% adjustment is largely due to the anticipated increased value of real estate (primarily residential) and also takes into account anticipated increased cost for services (outside legal counsel, appraisal, review appraisal, title, relocation and property maintenance). The adjustment for anticipated market conditions is based on the SCC’s experience in all Abbott District market areas except Phillipsburg, Vineland and Millville over the past 5 years. All market segments, as seen in the Market Studies (Residential, Industrial and Commercial), have advanced significantly (largely 15 - 20%) each year since 2001. These studies are based on unaltered sales data from the Multiple Listing Service.
Apparently, they haven't been reading Grim over at the Northern New Jersey Real Estate Bubble. There's always the possibility that Grim is wrong, but no market can go up forever. Take a look at the Camden area, for example, since Camden is an Abbott District. Recently, the market's been climbing at a pretty good clip, based on the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight's quarterly home price index (last updated for 3rd quarter 2005).

Note: In each of the following charts, the blue line represents the home price index (left scale), while the red line indicates rate of change (right scale). I know the clarity isn't very good, but I will try to clean it up later.

There was a similar growth trend in the Camden market back in the 80s, as you can see here:

But what happened in between? Nothing! The market was essentially flat for about six years, as you can see in the next chart.

My point here is simple: previous year market trends cannot be used to reliably predict future movement! The Schools Construction Corporation wants us to believe that it can accurately estimate the cost of a construction project five-to-ten years from now, when it cannot even get a handle on current year spending. I think we ought to give them five-to-ten years, but in a Federal prison rather than in our wallets.

Governor Corzine, do not spend another dime of my money on this fiasco. Cut our losses, ignore the arrogant Supreme Court, and stop feeding cash into the gaping maw of the Abbott Districts.

Tags: Jersey, Taxes, Education, NJSCC

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

54th midway of the Carnival of Education

The Carnival of Education is up over at The EdWahoo. They were kind enough to pick up my post on recent hish school proficiency scores in New Jersey. Lots and lots of links to peruse, covering the gamut of educational issues.

Carnival of the GOP Bloggers 1

A new Carnival comes to town: the Carnival of the GOP Bloggers. Check it out - simple, short, and very interesting.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sci-Fi Profile

Thanks to Sluggo, I took the Sci-Fi Profile quiz. Then answer was both surprising and cool:

You scored as SG-1 (Stargate). You are versatile and diverse in your thinking. You have an open mind to that which seems highly unlikely and accept it with a bit of humor. Now if only aliens would stop trying to take over your body.

SG-1 (Stargate)


Serenity (Firefly)


Moya (Farscape)


Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix)


Babylon 5 (Babylon 5)


Deep Space Nine (Star Trek)


Enterprise D (Star Trek)


Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)


Galactica (Battlestar: Galactica)


FBI's X-Files Division (The X-Files)


Bebop (Cowboy Bebop)


Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)


Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in? (pics)
created with

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cheney Shoots Hunting Partner. Minorities and Children Most Affected

I'm sure everyone knows by now that Vice President Cheney accidentally peppered his hunting partner with birdshot yesterday. A terrible thing to happen, and I'm sure the VP feels horrible about it. Fortunately, it turned out to be "just a flesh wound."

Jack at Jersey Persepective poses the question, What If Cheney Had Killed Him?

... it makes you think, what if Cheney had killed the guy? Would it make headlines in papers (tabloids excluded)? Would Cheney resign? Which brings us to the next question. Who would a)be selected to take Cheney's place as VP[?]
I think it likely that, had this been a fatal accident, Cheney would have offered his resignation to the President. The real question is, would the President accept such an offer? Cheney at that point would still be a brilliant administrator, and a cunning politician, moving with great skill through the halls of power in Washington. In other words, a key asset to the administration. If I were the President, I would not allow Cheney to resign.

If the situation became such that Cheney was unable to perform his duties, then I would consider accepting it, and would look for a replacement in Cheney's mold. Someone with demonstrated political skill inside the beltway, strong on national security affairs, polished diplomatically, and [breaking the mold] appealing to the general public. The position requires someone who has effectively led, as the chief executive, large organizations, because I am really picking my own potential replacement. I could think of no one better suited to those qualifications than Dr. Condoleeza Rice.

Thanks, Jack, for the thought provoking questions. No thanks, however, for the sophomoric final question, "and b)who would run the Bush adminstration?"

Tags: Dick Cheney, Shotgun, Hunting, Accident, Politics

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Carnival of the New Jersey Bloggers 39

Bob at eCache hosts the latest Carnival of the New Jersey Bloggers, the 39th and apparently biggest edition yet! I overloaded my browser with tabs trying to open all of the interesting links. Go check it out.

Tags: Carnival of the New Jersey Bloggers

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

School Performance

Digging around in the 2004-05 New Jersey School Report Card database, I ran across some interesing data that I thought I would share. First, the bad news. The Access database is as poorly organized as always, so extracting information from the data is going to be a long, hard slog.

But, there's also good news, and in a surprising location. I stumbled into the vocational school districts while looking to confirm the trends from last year's post on this subject. In the vocational districts, about 3600 students take the High School Proficiency Assessment each year. Their performance has been increasing steadily since the 2002-03 school year, as shown in the table below:

Subject YEAR Fail Proficient AP
Lang 0203 25% 61% 13%
Lang 0304 23% 63% 13%
Lang 0405 19% 62% 18%
Math 0203 45% 37% 17%
Math 0304 38% 39% 22%
Math 0405 29% 46% 25%

What's causing this improved performance? Hard to say, but ... could this be measurable impact from the No Child Left Behind Act?

Tags: New Jersey, Education

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Enlighten-NewJersey: Evaluating New Jersey’s Public Schools

Enlighten-NewJersey points out the Star-Ledger's very useful tools for accessing both school performance and local tax data. I'm working on a little something based on that data, and hope to have something to show for it shortly.

Tags: New Jersey, Education, Taxes

Saving tax dollars

DynamoBuzz notes that state Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts has put out a request for ideas on how to save tax dollars. The link will take you to a web form where you can share your thoughts.
Here were my suggestions for the Speaker:

1) Reduce state headcount by 25%. Patronage jobs must go.
2) Ignore the Supreme Court's funding dictates on schools - it is the legislature's job to decide on spending priorities.
3) Kill the Schools Construction Corp. Adding a middleman into the process of buying school property and buildings is an absolute waste. Staffing it with political cronies is a crime.
4) Get out of the research business. If you want research to be done in the state, lower the tax burden on the average scientific worker.
5) Require state workers to pay a portion of their health care premiums. Mine cost me 1.7% of my base pay, plus a $20 co pay for each visit. Wouldn't it be reasonable to require some financial commitment from our employees as well?
6) Stop promising new workers the same deal that older workers have. Transition the retirement system to a defined contribution plan.

Thanks for listening. I look forward to seeing your committee debate these and the many other suggestions you will receive. It'd be nice to see them tallied and posted on this site.

Like Roberto, I'm skeptical about the probability that these suggestions will be heard and debated, much less implemented. I'll be watching, though, and will also forward these suggestions to my assembly delegation and senator.

Tags: New Jersey, Taxes, State Budget, New Jersey Politics

New Jersey Carnival

Philomathean hosts the 38th edition of the Carnival of the New Jersey Bloggers. Good stuff, go read it all!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

What Do The ACLU And NRA Have In Common?

There's an interesting discussion going on right now between Jack at Jersey Perspective and DBK at Blanton and Ashton's. DBK had a long piece about attending an ACLU event and joining said organization, but ended it thusly:

Next I am going to join the NRA. I'm not kidding about that. It isn't an evil organization, just a little extreme in some of its positions. Any organization that provides education on the safe use of guns is doing a good thing.
Jack thinks he understands GDK's motivation, but then gets all confused about the 2nd Amendment and the power of Congress "to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia." He seems to think that under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress could decide "that BB-Guns are sufficient arms for the men of the nation, who will make up the militia in times of war."

DBK attempts to correct that misperception in the comments, but Jack still disagrees:
My point is that I don't think it would be unreasonable for congress to prohibit the ownership of handguns for non-military personnel.

It's pretty clear to me that Jack doesn't understand exactly who makes up the militia. Fortunately, Congress has executed its responsibility in this regard, through the various Militia Acts passed over the years. I posted the following in Jersey Perspective's comments, but wanted to share it here as well.
Jack, remember the historical definition of "militia" is "The entire able-bodied population of a state, which can be called to arms against an invading enemy." The Militia Act of 1792 defined the militia as "each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years."

Obviously, the law has evolved with the times, and Title 10, section 311 of US Code states "The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States and of female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard."

The law requires every man of age (and woman who chooses to do so) to be a member of the militia, by definition. This is not, as you put it, an 18th century notion. The law was amended to its current form in 1993.

The 2nd amendment makes it clear that for the militia to be effective, its members must be adequately armed, and therefore, no restrictions may be placed on the ability of the militia members to arm themselves.

We all have a responsibility to be prepared to defend our nation in time of war. Politicians should not monkey around with the Second Amendment, which ensures that we have access to the tools necessary to execute such a defense. Jack knows that the politicians understand this.
Not even the most left leaning congressmen from the most anti-gun districts challenge the right to bear arms.

He should follow their lead.