The Star-Ledger

State 'Pay-To-Play' Reforms In Sight

Legislative leaders expect both houses to adopt a compromise measure next month

The Star-Ledger — Friday, May 21, 2004

By JOSH MARGOLIN
Star-Ledger Staff

After weeks of backroom negotiations, legislative leaders yesterday signaled they are near a compromise on reforms aimed at breaking the cycle of campaign contributions and government contracts known as "pay-to-play."

The Senate president and Assembly speaker issued a joint statement saying the State Government Committees of both houses will meet June 3 to approve the finishing touches on a pay-to-play reform measure. The leaders plan to have their full houses adopt the legislation June 10.

"The Senate and Assembly must now put together the very best elements from a wide range of proposals," Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D-Hudson) said in their statement.

Officials involved in the negotiations said they are on the verge of a deal on a bill that can make it through both houses. It would be based on a compromise proposal offered last week by Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), which would bar those who donate substantial sums to state, county or local political campaigns from being awarded no-bid state contracts. It would not affect contracts that are bid competitively.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) last night declined to discuss the details of the negotiations, but made clear the significance of Weinberg's proposal.

"Assemblywoman Weinberg has really advanced the process in a meaningful way," Roberts said. "She may have found the middle ground that is both comprehensive and constitutionally sound."

Word of the progress came shortly before the Assembly State Government Committee met last night at Montclair State University and unanimously approved a dozen less-controversial ethics bills that are scheduled to come before the full Assembly on Monday. Those bills would strengthen campaign-finance and lobbying rules.

The committee also approved a measure to increase the annual budget for the state Election Law Enforcement Commission from its current $3 million to $5 million. ELEC is charged with administering all campaign finance and lobbying laws, and executive director Frederick Herrmann said he expects it will need to double its 45-person staff to handle new duties monitoring campaigns and lobbyists.

Before the votes, the committee held a hearing on a proposal by Roberts for a pilot program of public financing of legislative campaigns. The bill would introduce public funding in two legislative district races next year.

"You should prohibit pay-to-play contracting at every possible level, and we have every hope that you will," Staci Berger, program director for the watchdog group Citizen Action, told the committee. "But above all, we hope you will provide a new way for candidates to raise money that does not rely on personal wealth or private special interests."

Earlier yesterday, about the same time the Democratic leaders were announcing their plan for votes next month, Republicans attempted a procedural maneuver to bring a strict pay-to-play reform bill to the Senate floor immediately.

Sen. Peter Inverso (R-Mercer) called for a vote on a bill identical to one that was passed last year by the Senate but stalled in the Assembly. He said that bill "sent a very clear message" that it was time to reduce the influence of money on government, and expressed concern that the Democrats will produce a watered-down version.

All 18 Republican senators were joined by freshman Sen. Ellen Karcher (D-Monmouth) in the motion to bring that bill to the floor, but it failed.

Pay-to-play reform is the most controversial of the ethics bills now moving through the Legislature. In recent years, the Senate has taken the lead on the issue but the Assembly had refused repeated efforts to bring reform measures to the floor.

In March, Sires and Roberts unveiled their own reform package of 25 bills, including a pay-to-play measure, and joined with Gov. James E. McGreevey in pledging to enact it by July 1. But their bill was substantially different than the one in the Senate, making it impossible for the reform to become law without a compromise between the two houses.

The Sires-Roberts plan does not address donations made to any candidates besides those who run for the Legislature or for governor. The Senate version, by comparison, prohibits donors to candidates at all levels from being awarded either bid or no-bid contracts. Roberts and Sires have said they do not support such a sweeping measure because, they believe, it would be struck down in court for violating the constitutional rights of donors who would lose state work as a result of donations at lower political levels.

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