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Democrats Tackle Ethics In State Government

Home News Tribune — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

By MICHAEL SYMONS
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON — Assembly Democrats unveiled a 25-point plan their leaders called the most significant government reforms in 30 years yesterday, but their outline was swiftly criticized for not going far enough.

State contractors would be prevented from making some campaign contributions, and all state contracts would be competitively bid. Lobbyists, legislators and fund-raisers could face increased regulation, disclosure, fees or fines.

A pilot program would provide Assembly candidates in two districts the chance next year to have their races publicly financed. Former lawmakers would be banned for one year from registering as lobbyists.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden, said government accomplishments have been overshadowed by media coverage of ethics, campaign finance and alleged corruption. He said the goal of the plan is to "sweep State Street clean."

"Whether their concerns are real or perceived about the way business in done in Trenton, it is clear that they are troubled by some of what they see and some of what they read. We have an obligation to confront those issues head-on," he said.

Republicans said certain ideas have merit but that significant issues such as dual office holding and the trading of campaign contributions for contracts aren't dealt with adequately.

"The Democratic leadership doesn't get it," said Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, R-Monmouth. "This will make people more outraged than ever. Their pay-to-play proposal is a joke. That's a centerpiece reform they're paying lip service to."

"Some of these bills may be helpful, but many are watered-down versions of bills that we already had introduced, and others skirt the issues they propose to address," said Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, R-Morris.

A half-dozen citizen and environmental groups endorsed the plan. They were particularly pleased that New Jersey -- such as Arizona and Maine -- could provide public funding for legislative races, reducing the sway of special-interest cash.

"The ethics crisis we face in the Garden State goes deeper than 'which company got which contract.' The voting and taxpaying public needs to know the Legislature has the independence to enact policies that will benefit the greater good," said Staci Berger of New Jersey Citizen Action.

Roberts said people are skeptical about the intent of state officeholders and that it harms the government's ability to debate other matters of importance, such as property taxes, education, the environment and transportation.

"If we want to engage the public in a debate about those issues, if we want the public to have any confidence in the decisions that we make about those issues, we have to deal with what is fundamental. And that is they have to trust us," Roberts said. "In the present climate, there has been an erosion of that public trust."

Legislation has not yet been prepared, but Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-Hudson, directed two Assembly committees to hold public hearings on the plan during the next six weeks, in advance of a planned Assembly vote in June.

"Citizen-advocacy groups, legislators from both sides of the aisle and news organizations all applied pressure that helped put ethics reform at the top of the Statehouse agenda. They all deserve credit for various components of this package," Sires said. "I believe this initiative will help heal the erosion of public faith in New Jersey government."

Critics said portions of the plan are incomplete, in particular the part exempting county and local governments from a halt to "pay-to-play," the informal system of rewarding campaign donors with government contracts.

Any business with a state contract of $17,500 or more would be blocked from donating to gubernatorial campaigns or state parties. It would take effect Jan. 1, 2006, after the 2005 elections for governor and Assembly.

But companies with state contracts could still give $25,000 a year to the legislative leadership committees and $37,000 a year to each of the 21 county party committees, if they wanted, giving those political figures even greater sway.

Harry Pozycki, the chairman of Common Cause New Jersey, said the proposal "gives us something to build upon" but that the omission of leadership PACs is "a gaping hole" in the plan.

"Certainly one of the things that has to be addressed with respect to the pay-to-play provisions are the absence of leadership PACs. That's clear," said Pozycki. "Legislative leaders can take very, very large contributions, and they do informally affect the contracting process."

Roberts said the bill will make clear that local governments can adopt campaign-finance laws, as 80 have done already. It also will direct the state Department of Community Affairs to give municipalities that adopted such rules preference in its awarding of discretionary grants.

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

Republicans also panned the Assembly Democrats' proposal to establish a commission that will study whether to prevent lawmakers from holding second elective offices, such as mayor or county freeholder.

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

"Dual office holding by legislators remains a festering problem that the majority is, plain and simple, afraid to tackle," said Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris. He said the omission makes it "hard to take the . . . plan seriously."

The commission would study the 11 legislative proposals addressing dual office holding and initiatives in other states. It would include political appointees and officials from the League of Women Voters and the State League of Municipalities.

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