We began the second decade of the 21st Century with another tumultuous year.
New Jersey has suffered through wild weather, with winter blizzards giving way to summer storms, Hurricane Irene and an October snowstorm that left some without power for nearly a week. And while the economy continued to show some positive signs, for too many their personal financial situation has yet to improve.
Yet the news wasn’t all bad. The United States officially declared the end of the war in Iraq, eight and a half years after it begin. U.S. Marines finally located and killed Osama bin Laden, just months ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and later killed. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died of heart failure earlier this month, though whether these changes in leadership will make the world a better place remain to be seen.
But as has been the case since the global financial meltdown in 2008, the biggest themes of the year were economic ones. Occupy Wall Street captured worldwide attention this fall. Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia this spring, the populist movement arose out of anger at economic inequality in the United States.
The movement brought the terms “The 99%” and “1%” to national consciousness as participants expressed outrage at the richest 1% of people that control the global economy.
Occupy Wall Street began in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s Financial District, but soon spread to other cities throughout the United States and around the globe. There have been “Occupy” events in Trenton, Newark, Jersey City and other New Jersey communities.
In recent weeks, authorities have increased their efforts to break up the “Occupy” camps in many U.S. cities. An offshoot of the original loosely organized movement began to take the “occupy” concept further in December, as they moved to help homeless families take possession of vacant homes that have been foreclosed on by banks.
For much of the summer, the talk about the American economy focused on a different topic: the specter of the possibility that the federal government would default on its financial obligations after reaching an arbitrary $14.29 trillion borrowing limit.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress spent months arguing over the best way to address the nation’s deficit. Democrats favored a plan of spending cuts and tax increases, while Republicans advocated deeper spending cuts and no tax increases.
As time ran out, Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling and make some spending cuts, but the moves were not enough to keep Standard & Poors from downgrading America’s credit rating. A special bipartisan committee was unable to come to an agreement on further deficit reduction measures, triggering automatic across the board spending cuts in 2013.
And as the year draws to a close, partisan bickering continued over measures to extend a payroll tax cut and maintain federally-funded extended unemployment benefits.
This June marked the two-year anniversary of the end of the “Great Recession,” but many unemployed workers haven’t had cause to celebrate. The national unemployment rate fell below 9 percent in November, but the decrease had as much to do with the shrinking of the official count of the labor force as it did newly-added jobs. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics only considers people who have actively sought employment in the past four weeks in its unemployment estimate. New Jersey’s unemployment rate still remained at 9.1 percent, half a percentage point higher than the national rate.
The economy is expected to be the issue of next year’s Presidential campaign, which will begin in earnest in a few days with the Iowa Caucuses on Tuesday. For a time this year, it looked like Gov. Chris Christie might get involved as a late entrant into the Republican field. In October, Christie put an end to the rumors, officially announcing that he would not run by saying “I will not abandon my commitment to New Jersey.”
Christie won friends and made enemies as he successfully pushed through a proposal to change New Jersey public workers’ pensions and benefits with the aid of some Democratic lawmakers. Under the new plan, workers will pay more towards their pensions and benefits, and retirees lost their cost-of-living adjustment increases. According to experts, these changes alone will not be enough to ensure the long-term solvency of the state’s pension funds, which have a deficit greater than $50 billion because multiple administrations failed to make required contributions. The plan also faces several legal challenges.
New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights took effect this September, requiring schools to implement strict and standardized procedures to investigate and address any reported incidents. It’s too early to tell if the law will prevent students from being the victims of bullying, but some school administrators have already complained about the bureaucratic requirements.
In local news, Rahway’s Municipal Council is at odds with first-year Mayor Rick Proctor. The legislative body voted in December to slash the mayor’s salary by more than two-thirds. Earlier this year, the mayor was accused of trying to use his influence to get his wife a city job, though Proctor denies the allegations.
Roselle will have a new mayor in 2012, as Council President Jamel Holley defeated incumbent Garrett Smith in the Democratic Primary and won an uncontested November election.
Elizabeth School Board President Marie Munn was arrested for allegedly defrauding a federal program that provides free lunches to poor schoolchildren after the Star-Ledger wrote that her children received free meals they shouldn’t have qualified for. Munn returned $2,682 to cover the cost of the food, but denied the allegations.
Clark residents organized an advocacy group called the Clark Neighbors to fight the “overdevelopment” of the township after they learned of a planned 39-unit housing development on the site of Miele’s Greenhouse on Lake Avenue.
In sports, New York Yankees team captain Derek Jeter became the 28th player in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits for his career, while closer Mariano Rivera set the all-time career saves record.
After a lockout that wiped out the first part of the NBA schedule, the New Jersey Nets opened their final season in the Garden State on Tuesday night in Newark. Next season, they will play in Brooklyn.
New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer became the third player in team history to have his jersey retired earlier this month. He was part of all three of the Devils’ Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Hundreds of millions of people worldwide watched as Britain’s Prince William and Catherine Middleton were married in Westminster Abbey in April, while the final episode of Oprah Winfrey’s long-running daytime talk show in May was seen by 16.4 million viewers.
This year, we lost many notable individuals, including: Apple, Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs; singer Amy Winehouse; actress Elizabeth Taylor; Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate nominated by a major political party; actor Peter Falk, former first lady Betty Ford, boxer Joe Frazier, author Anne McCaffery; former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who became a symbol of peace and freedom after leading the bloodless “Velvet Revolution”; and “Family Circus” creator, cartoonist Bill Keane.
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