The New York Times

Stricter Plan In New Jersey On Campaign Donor Rules

The New York Times — Wednesday, March 17, 2004


TRENTON, March 16 — After blocking campaign finance legislation for almost two years, the Democrats who control New Jersey's General Assembly announced on Tuesday a proposal to ban campaign contributions by companies that do business with the state, and promised to enact the measure before the summer recess.

Republican leaders immediately dismissed the plan as far short of their sponsored legislation, which the State Senate has twice approved with nearly unanimous Democratic support and sent to the Assembly. But the Democrats' plan, which included several other campaign finance proposals, won endorsements from an array of good-government groups, many of which said later that the Democrats' plan was the best they could realistically hope for.

Calls for ethics legislation, and especially for the campaign finance restrictions to ban the practice known as pay-to-play, have increased since federal investigators raided the Democratic State Committee headquarters two weeks ago and then delivered a subpoena to the governor's office for information on campaign donors.

"I believe this will help heal the erosion of the public faith in New Jersey's government," the Assembly speaker, Albio Sires, said in announcing the proposals.

Mr. Sires and the Assembly's majority leader, Joseph J. Roberts Jr., described the campaign finance proposal as the strictest in the nation. It would also make New Jersey the first state, they said, to require bidding for all state contracts, including those for legal work and other professional services that for many years have been routinely awarded to campaign donors. The plan would also bar contractors from contributing to the governor or to the state party organizations, which are conduits for campaign funds.

The legislation would not apply to legislators, however, or the legislative campaign committees that distribute funds to candidates. Nor would it apply to officials or party organizations at the county or municipal levels, as the earlier ethics legislation did. On Monday the speaker shut down a Republican attempt to release that bill for a vote on the Assembly floor.

Together, the county organizations raised tens of millions of dollars for the November legislative election, sending much of it to a few closely contested districts around the state. The chairmen of those county organizations are some of the most powerful politicians in the state.

Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., the Republican sponsor of the original pay-to-play bill, said Tuesday that "it's imperative that this legislation be fundamentally revised" to extend to all levels of government and to prohibit county organizations from sending funds to other counties.

The Senate majority leader, Leonard Lance, said another "glaring loophole" was the plan's timetable; it would take effect only after the 2005 Assembly and gubernatorial elections. "So we continue the current, corrupting system for this election cycle," Senator Lance said.

The Democrats also proposed an experiment with public financing, to begin in two districts in the 2005 Assembly general election. The plan is modeled on those in effect statewide in Arizona and Maine.

Other proposals include restrictions on advertising, stricter disclosure requirements for legislators and bidders, and a registration requirement for paid fund-raisers.

Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, has insisted on legislation covering all levels of government, and he will continue to press for broader legislation, said Eric Shuffler, the governor's counselor. But Mr. Shuffler said the proposals were "pretty positive on the whole."

The Senate president, Richard J. Codey, said in a statement that Senate Democrats were committed to enacting legislation before July. Senator Codey said, "I won't single out our differences at this point because there is far more here upon which we all agree."

Harry S. Pozycki, the chairman of Common Cause New Jersey and an author of the original pay-to-play legislation, said the Assembly Democrats had made a promising turnabout. "It's a significant first step for the majority leader, who was entirely against pay-to-play reform," Mr. Pozycki said.

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