Democrats Hope Plan Restores Public Trust

CourierPostOnline — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Gannett State Bureau

TRENTON — Flanked by nearly two dozen Assembly Democrats and government reform advocates, posters outlining their plan and a giant collage of newspaper clippings about corruption scandals, Assembly Democratic leaders Tuesday unveiled their long-anticipated 25-point ethics reform package.

Pledging to restore public confidence in state government, Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-West New York, outlined how his members made ethics reform a top priority in the legislative session that started in January. Nine days after the Assembly Democrats first gathered, leadership had its initial meeting with good-government groups, Sires said. And 53 days later they had crafted a plan.

"New Jerseyans are rightly tired of all the grandstanding, the parliamentary games and blame-trading that has occurred on the issue of ethics reform," Assembly Democratic Leader Joe Roberts, D-Camden, said while announcing the plan, several aspects of which he said are the nation's strongest. "This package constitutes a new frontier on ethics and campaign reform in our state Legislature."

But critics of the proposal surfaced quickly, noting the 25 proposals were only sketched out as ideas - not fully written in bill form - and Sires' schedule involves calling lawmakers to Trenton for special meetings on the issues during two months traditionally reserved for budget talks.

The plan also differs in some substantial ways from demands Gov. James E. McGreevey established for any reform he signs into law and some elements don't take effect until after the 2005 elections.

"It moves the ball down the field," said McGreevey adviser Eric Shuffler, noting the governor has called for contract reform that applies to all levels of government - state, county and municipal - not just state officials, as the Democrats' plan proposes. Shuffler praised the extensive proposal, but added: "We still need additional discussions regarding how to make this legislation expansive."

The package would ban no-bid contracts at the state level and restrict political contributions from companies and individuals doing business with the state, a practice known as pay to play. It creates a publicly funded "clean election" pilot program, starting with two legislative districts, strengthens disclosure rules for lawmakers and lobbyists, and beefs up the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission, among other changes.

Although the governor might have had broader designs for a pay-to-play ban, Sires said this plan, which focuses on state contract reform, has a better chance of clearing the Senate and Assembly.

"I think if we start murking the water by putting counties and municipalities, there's a chance that the package will not get through," Sires said, estimating the package could be scheduled for a full Assembly vote in May or June. "This is a sweeping reform. Is it perfect? It's not perfect. Is it going to be better down the line? I hope so."

Republicans - who have tried repeatedly to force an Assembly vote on an existing pay-to-play bill, only to be blocked by Democrats holding a 14-seat advantage - quickly claimed the Sires/Roberts plan was full of loopholes.

Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, R-Parsippany-Troy Hills, the GOP caucus leader, noted the contract reform doesn't take effect until after 2005 - when McGreevey and all 80 Assembly seats are up for election.

"We have the FBI seizing fund-raising documents today, and issuing subpoenas to the governor's office, but the Democrats want to wait two more years for reform?" DeCroce asked, referring to a probe by the U.S. Attorney's Office into questions about a Democratic fund-raiser.

Past GOP reforms have been enacted immediately, DeCroce noted, adding: "The question today is, what will the Democrats do to address today's concerns?"

But rank-and-file Democrats and lobbyists joining the reform effort considered the proposal a good start. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce's Jim Leonard called it a "sweeping package" that is the "first mile in the campaign finance and ethics reform marathon."

Jeff Tittel of New Jersey Sierra Club said rhetoric had been replaced by real work, and quipped: "A bill in the hand is worth two in the bush."

Assemblyman Robert Morgan, D-Little Silver, said it was important to start legislative work on the proposals soon. "The perfect is ordinarily the enemy of the good, and under these circumstances this is the exact right step we need to be taking," Morgan said.

Copyright 2004 Courier-Post

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