Gloucester County Times

Ethics Takes Center Stage In Trenton

Gloucester County Times — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

By Terrence Dopp

TRENTON — Assembly Democrats on Tuesday proposed what they called the nation's toughest campaign finance package, a 25-point plan to end pay-to-play politics and remove money from government.

The announcement came 15 minutes after Gov. James E. McGreevey, an embattled freshman Democrat, made public a host of documents in the federal probe into allegations his administration gave a fund-raiser special deals on tax and other matters.

"In the present climate, there has been an erosion in trust," said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts, D-5 of Camden. "This package will make New Jersey a national leader. New Jersey will lead by example."

While no legislation has been crafted, Democrats said the pay-to-play component would preclude anyone making a direct contribution of $17,500 or more to a candidate from getting public contracts. The measure is aimed at the governor's office, Democrats said.

Along with that aspect, Roberts' "Restoring the Public Trust" package would:

* Tighten conflict-of-interest laws that currently allow lawmakers to vote on a bill that would benefit them simply by writing house leadership and assuring them the ability to render a fair and impartial vote;

* Increase lawmakers' financial disclosures;

* Ban no-bid contracts;

* Make New Jersey the first state in the nation to adopt the federal McCain-Feingold funding law regulating third party or issue ads and banning unions and corporations from sponsoring them;

* Require greater registration and reporting from political fund-raisers.


In another initiative, it calls for a limited trial run in 2005 of so-called "clean," or publicly funded, Assembly races as a trial of a statewide system.

But critics said the legislation stops short of previous proposals by both Republicans and Democrats.

Along with key provisions not kicking in until 2006 or 2007, the Democratic proposal does not apply to elected officials at the county and municipal level or New Jersey's 600-plus school boards the GOP said.

Likewise, they added, it fails to address dual office holding.

The director of Common Cause New Jersey, a government ethics group that has pushed for ethics reform, said the proposal by Roberts and Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-Hudson, is a start. Yet Harry Pozycki cited the narrow scope of the pay-to-play ban and ability of political action committees to skirt the laws as two drawbacks.

"Assembly Majority Leader Roberts has provided an outline that has a number of constructive and creative ideas, Pozycki said. "This is just the beginning of the process so I'm not going to calculate what could and what couldn't be in" the legislation.

"There's still some discussion we need to have in the weeks going ahead on applying it to multiple levels of government," said Eric Shuffler, counselor to the governor. "Today is a significant step forward."

Along with six Democrats, groups unveiling the proposal included New Jersey Citizen Action, the Sierra Club, American Association of Retired Persons and the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

McGreevey, who has vowed to veto any legislation that does not apply to all levels of government in New Jersey, will review the legislation, an aide said.

The package is the latest set of proposals in a two-year stalemate over revamping New Jersey ethics laws. Both Democrats and GOP legislators have tried to advance reform measures.

But the GOP drew a comparison between McGreevey's trouble, a search warrant executed recently at the Democratic State Committee's Trenton headquarters and the ethics legislation.

Brian Nelson, executive director of the Republican State Committee, impugned Roberts on ethical issues, pointing to his introduction of a law that would have benefited a company in which he owned stock. When the issue received press attention last year, Roberts withdrew the law, which would have allowed the company, U.S. Vision, to perform some eye surgeries it is currently prohibited from doing.

"I think he's not the best messenger due to his previous conflicts," Nelson said. "I find it remarkable it took this long for the Democrats to finally come on board what we've been pushing for two years."

When asked if the U.S. Vision matter hampers his position on ethical issues, Roberts said, "I think that's irrelevant and it's unrelated."

According to a band of supporters, one proposal in the package advanced by Roberts and Sires holds the greatest promise for severing the ties between money and government: publicly funded, or clean, elections.

Under the plan Roberts has proposed, two legislative districts would be chosen in the 2005 Assembly races to take part in a pilot program. The program would require candidates to raise "threshold" or seed money and if they meet a set amount they would qualify to opt for matching public funds.

New Jersey would be the first state in the nation to enact such a system by a vote in the Legislature. Currently, only Arizona and Maine have such a system.

"Money will always find its way into politics and by its nature it's corrosive," said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. He added clean elections are the way to end national perception of New Jersey as "an industrial wasteland and (home) of corruption."

Arizona enacted the finance system in 1998 following an initiative and referendum effort in which the public sidestepped the Legislature and governor. Pointing to Gov. Janet Napolitano, one activist in that state said public elections have proven a major component in restoring integrity to a state that had two chief executives impeached.

"This is by far the most responsive governor's office and she has by far the most open door," said Chad Campbell, program director for the Arizona Advocacy Network, said. "That is a direct correlation to the fact that she ran a clean campaign."

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