The Star-Ledger

Ethics Proposal From Assembly Sets Stage For A Law By July

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

By DUNSTAN McNICHOL AND JOE DONOHUE
Star-Ledger Staff

After two years of talking about the need for a sweeping government ethics bill, political leaders in Trenton said yesterday they are ready to enact a law by the summer.

Assembly Democrats, who have blocked ethics bills twice since 2002, unveiled a plan to outlaw no-bid contracts, put new restrictions on lobbying and force lawmakers to tell more about their personal finances.

"The people of New Jersey demand and deserve the highest level of ethical behavior for all public officials, and that's just what we are going to give them," Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D-Hudson) said at a news conference.

The proposal drew immediate praise from Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) and the counsel to Gov. James E. McGreevey, setting the stage for negotiations to produce a new ethics law before the Legislature's summer break in July.

Any ethics legislation must still survive the political gamesmanship of Trenton, where almost everyone seems to have an ethics plan these days. Proposals have been advanced by McGreevey and lawmakers from both parties. Republicans who are out of power in Trenton have trumpeted ethics reform on a daily basis.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) said the Assembly plan would be "the most sweeping set of reforms in 30 years."

Republicans said, however, the Assembly version is weaker than ethics reforms passed by the Senate the past two years because it would allow county and municipal political organizations to continue collecting campaign contributions from contractors.

McGreevey said last year he would veto any legislation that didn't include a restriction of this practice. Republicans also criticized Democrats for postponing the effective date of new campaign contribution limits until January 2006 -- after the next gubernatorial election.

"We should ban 'pay-to-play' immediately," said Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon), using the shorthand for the system in which state contractors win state work after making political campaign contributions. "We should not have another election under our current system, which is rotten to the core."

Ethics and political fund-raising have dominated the political debate in Trenton for more than two years as an aggressive U.S. Attorney's Office has pressed corruption indictments and investigations at all levels of government, and as lawmakers have faced criticism about opportunities for self-enrichment, nepotism and political favoritism under existing state laws.

Major components of the Assembly's 25-point plan include:

The Assembly action comes as Democrats bring in campaign contributions at a rate of about $2 million a month, shattering political fund-raising records for statewide campaigns.

A broad campaign-finance reform proposal that passed the Senate was blocked by Assembly Democrats twice in two years. In addition to other restrictions, that bill would have prohibited contractors from making contributions to county-level political committees, and would have limited how much county political leaders can distribute to other political committees. These provisions, which also have been demanded by McGreevey, are not part of the Assembly bill.

"The Democrats claimed they were blocking my bill because they intended to propose their own, stronger version of pay-to-play reform," said Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole (R-Passaic), who tried unsuccessfully to call a vote on his reform bill during Monday's Assembly session. "Instead we are presented with a weak bill that doesn't address all levels of government and would not take effect for two years."

McGreevey also has vowed to veto any bill that doesn't apply to county and municipal governments. Yesterday Eric Shuffler, counsel to the governor, said county committees would be one topic of discussion as work on the reform bills advances this spring.

"The governor still believes that reform should apply to every level of government," he said. "That's something we're going to talk about."

Codey said the package proposed yesterday is a "first good step" toward ethics reform and that Senate Democrats "share a goal of getting this done by the end of June."

Sires said there isn't support in the Assembly for extending the restrictions beyond state government. "I wanted to put a package together that could pass the Assembly and pass the Senate. I don't think, at this time, I can get that through," he said.

Several advocates for election reform -- including the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, Public Citizen [New Jersey Citizen Action], the Sierra Club and New Jersey Public Interest Research Group -- endorsed the plan yesterday.

"This legislative package makes it clear that New Jersey will be seen as a leader in the ethics reform debate and no longer an example of what not to do," said Jim Leonard, spokesman for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

"This is the beginning of the process," said New Jersey Common Cause chairman Harry Pozycki, who did not participate in the news conference. "We need now to build on this."

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