Philadelphia Inquirer

N.J. Democrats Propose A Package To Limit Money's Role In Politics

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

By Kaitlin Gurney
Inquirer Staff Writer

TRENTON — Declaring their intent to "sweep New Jersey government clean," Assembly Democrats yesterday introduced a sweeping package of legislation designed to limit the influence of money in state politics.

The 25-part proposal – authored by the same Assembly members long accused of blocking campaign-finance changes – seeks to restrict campaign contributions from government contractors, toughen legislative disclosure requirements, and explore public financing of legislative elections.

The Democratic leaders outlined their ethics platform two weeks after federal investigators raided Democratic state headquarters and Gov. McGreevey's office for information on a politically connected Middlesex County fund-raiser.

"I believe this initiative will help heal the erosion of public faith in New Jersey government," Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D., Hudson) said at a crowded Statehouse news conference. "The people of New Jersey demand and deserve the highest ethical standards."

The legislation is modeled on good-government initiatives in other states, such as Washington's legislative disclosure requirements, Ohio's ban on pay-to-play, and Maine's and Arizona's public financing of elections, said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts (D., Camden).

If the package is approved - Democrats have a 47-33 edge in the Assembly - New Jersey will become the first state to ban no-bid government contracts, require professional political fund-raisers to register with the state, and restrict issue-ad commercials before elections, Roberts said. In a pilot program to begin in 2005, two New Jersey legislative districts would try publicly funded elections.

The public financing - as well as an expansion of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission - would be funded by an increase in lobbyist fees.

"I believe this package constitutes a new frontier, allowing New Jersey to lead by example," Roberts said.

Assembly lawmakers will work through the traditional two-month budget recess to refine the bills, Roberts said, adding that he would be disappointed if they were not passed by June.

But minutes after the ethics proposals were introduced, lawmakers of both parties began criticizing the legislation's failure to limit political contributions at the county or municipal levels. Focusing only on the state level would increase the clout of powerful county-level fund-raisers such as Camden County Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, they said.

Republicans noted that the ban on pay-to-play would not take effect until 2006, skirting the 2005 gubernatorial election. Just Monday, Roberts and Sires blocked a vote on a pay-to-play ban that Assembly Republicans had tried to advance.

"This proposal is marred by glaring loopholes," Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon) said. "Any ethics proposal that permits dual office holding and 'pay-to-play' to flourish is significantly flawed."

Republicans contend that some of the perception of conflict of interest comes from state lawmakers holding more than one elective office. They have proposed banning the practice. The Assembly Democrats would just establish a commission to study the practice.

Senate President Richard Codey (D., Essex), who has repeatedly called on the Assembly to vote on the ban on pay-to-play at all levels of government that the Senate passed unanimously last March, said the Assembly leaders' proposal was a "good first step."

"I won't single out our differences at this point, because there is far more here upon which we all agree," he said.

McGreevey has refused to sign any pay-to-play measure that does not apply to all levels of government. But yesterday he, too, praised the Assembly leaders' work, promising to help strengthen the legislation, adviser Eric Shuffler said.

Roberts, who has close ties to Norcross and the Camden County Democratic organization, said state government had a responsibility to "clean up its own house first."

"Only when we have done that do we have the moral authority to ask towns and counties to do the same," he said.

Nonpartisan government research groups that reviewed the proposals yesterday applauded the legislation's intent but noted a number of shortfalls. The bills' greatest strength, said Paul Ryan of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, is that they would address the public's perception of government corruption.

"This type of pay-to-play policy appears tough and comprehensive, which is important in a regime where you can give $25,000 to state political organizations," Ryan said.

But he said pay-to-play could be eliminated a lot more easily by reducing contribution limits, as many other states have. The public-financing pilot program is little more than a token, he said, but "there is a strong connection between the perception of pay-to-play and the lack of public financing."

In Arizona, nine out of 11 state officers, including the governor, and half of the legislators were elected through publicly financed "clean" campaigns, instituted in 1998, said Barbara Lubin of the Phoenix-based Clean Elections Institute.

"New Jersey lawmakers should give this more of a try," Lubin said. "It means you don't have to spend six to eight hours on the phone begging for money, and you don't have to eat rubber chicken at fund-raisers."

Any ethics efforts could help New Jersey's notoriety for public corruption, said Leah Rush of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.

"Any package with 25 points looking out for the public good is a positive step forward," she said.

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