The Times, Trenton

Dem Proposal Targets Pay-To-Play

The Times of Trenton — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Staff Writer

TRENTON — After bottling up campaign finance reform legislation for a year, Assembly Democratic leaders yesterday unveiled a 25-point ethics program they said would restore public confidence in state government.

The proposal would bar those seeking state contracts from donating money to a governor's campaign or to his political party and would set up a pilot program for publicly financed legislative elections.

"This initiative will help heal the erosion of public faith in New Jersey government," said Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-West New York.

The proposal would ban the "pay-to-play" system, the longtime New Jersey practice of rewarding campaign contributors with lucrative contracts, at the state level starting in 2006, but stops short of Gov. James E. McGreevey's insistence the reform apply to counties and municipalities before he will sign it.

Some Republicans scoffed at the proposal.

"This is pay-to-play lite, and it's also pay-to-play late," said Assemblyman Guy Gregg, R-Washington Township, Morris County. "We need to remove the cloud that's not just over Trenton but over the entire state, and we need to do it now, not in 2006."

Under the Democratic proposal, all state contracts would have to be awarded through public, competitive bidding. In addition, financial disclosure for lawmakers and lobbyists would be strengthened, political advertisements by interest groups would be restricted and political fund-raisers would have to register with the state.

Two legislative districts, one held by Republicans and one held by Democrats, would be chosen as a pilot program for publicly financed elections next year, when all 80 Assembly seats are up.

Sires would not say what districts might be used but said highly competitive districts and extremely safe districts would be ruled out.

"This is the most sweeping set of reforms in more than 30 years," said Assemblyman Joseph Roberts, D-Bellmawr, the Assembly majority leader, who developed much of the proposal. "Our goal is to sweep (West) State Street clean."

The proposal does not include a ban on lawmakers holding more than one public office, a practice that has been at the center of the ongoing debate about ethics in government.

Instead, Roberts' proposal, which has yet to be formally introduced as legislation, calls for creating a commission to study the issue.

Roberts said lawmakers should focus their attention on abolishing pay-to-play at the state level rather than expand the effort to counties and municipalities.

"We have an obligation as state officials to clean up our own house - put state government in order," he said. "Only after we have done that do we have the moral authority to ask counties or municipalities to follow our example."

Sires had a more practical reason for limiting pay-to-play reform to state contracts. "This is what we can get through the Legislature, and I want to get something passed and sent to the governor," he said.

Eric Shuffler, a top adviser to McGreevey, called the proposal positive.

"The governor set out a call for comprehensive reform, including legislative ethics," Shuffler said. "The speaker has moved significantly to meet that goal. We're pleased by the progress but understand there will be additional debate and discussion about how to make this legislation more expansive."

Senate President Richard Codey, D-West Orange, who has been advocating that pay-to-play reform apply to counties and municipalities as well as the state, said Roberts' proposal is a "good first step," and said he will work with Assembly leaders to try to pass legislation by the end of June.

Roberts' proposal, which was endorsed by a variety of business, senior citizen, environmental and citizen action groups, came one day after Assembly Democrats blocked a move by Republicans to force a vote on a campaign finance reform bill that was passed unanimously by the Senate last year.

Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Plainsboro, and Assemblymen Robert Morgan, D-Little Silver, and Michael Panter, D-Shrewsbury, abstained on the party line vote in what they said was an effort to send a message to party leaders.

Roberts and Sires yesterday praised the three lawmakers, saying they had helped develop parts of the proposal and had focused attention on the need for campaign finance and ethics reform.

"We're glad to see that many of our ideas have been incorporated into this proposal," Morgan said.

Greenstein said she was glad that her efforts paid off. "I'm convinced that had I not threatened to vote with Republicans, this proposal would not have included a pay-to-play reform component, so I feel I've accomplished something," she said.

While Democrats were touting their proposal, many Republicans attacked the plan.

"Any ethics proposal that permits dual office holding and pay-to-play to flourish is significantly flawed," said Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Clinton, the Senate minority leader.

Other Republicans, however, said the Democratic proposal was substantially better than they anticipated.

"I was prepared to call this sham reform, but it's not," said one Republican lawmaker.

Most Republicans criticized the proposal.

"We were told by the Democrats to wait for their proposal, and sadly it was not worth the wait," said Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, D-Morris Plains, the Assembly minority leader.

The pressure for pay-to-play reform has increased since the U.S. attorney for New Jersey subpoenaed records from the offices of the governor, the state treasurer and the state Department of Agriculture.

Believed to be at the center of the investigation is McGreevey's longtime acquaintance and political fund-raiser David D'Amiano.

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