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Lawmakers Approve Ethics Reform, Pay-To-Play Limit

Home News Tribune — Friday, June 11, 2004

By LILO H. STAINTON
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON — Lawmakers approved a host of ethics reforms -- including a widely maligned pay-to-play limit -- during a marathon double legislative session yesterday.

The highly-partisan final votes in the Senate and Assembly sent 23 elements of the Assembly Democrats' 25-point plan to Gov. James E. McGreevey to be signed into law. The Assembly also approved a bill to study dual officeholding and a proposal to add $2 million to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission's budget. The Senate did not take action on either.

Democrats said the measures will start to reduce the corrupting influence campaign cash has on government policy, but members of the GOP insist the changes will have little real impact. Lawmakers from both parties proposed a slew of ethics and campaign-finance reforms in the wake of a Gannett New Jersey newspapers series last fall that illustrated how Garden State legislators can use their public offices for private gain.

"We're enjoying a certain measure of success here today," said Common Cause Chairman Harry Pozycki, a leader in the reform movement. "What's sad is that otherwise good reform laws are being used as a cover-up, to hide a sham pay-to-play law that is laced with loopholes and is designed to reverse citizens' rights at the local and county level."

Proposals to increase state oversight of campaign fund-raising, to tighten restrictions on lobbyists, and to require lawmakers to disclose more business and banking information passed both houses fairly quickly and with largely bi-partisan support. But lawmakers, after spending close to an hour on tributes to former President Reagan and other dignitaries, took significant time to debate a publicly financed pilot program for legislative elections and a measure to reduce pay to play, the practice of rewarding campaign contributors with government contracts.

"If we learned one thing from McCain-Feingold (the federal clean-election effort approved in 2002) it is that there is no silver bullet with campaign finance reform," Assembly Democratic leader Joe Roberts of Camden, a lead architect of the 25-point plan, said in explaining the pilot program. "This is the greatest chance we have to eliminate the influence of money in politics in our state."

Modeled on efforts in Arizona and Maine, the "Clean Elections" plan would provide up to $100,000 in matching funds to candidates in selected competitive districts. Candidates would first have to raise $20,000 from voters in their districts, including 1,000 contributions at $5 and 500 at $30.

"It will keep special-interest money out of the process and help nontraditional candidates, like women and minorities, get elected," added Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, Mercer, a bill sponsor.

But Republicans in both houses said the small contributions would be too hard to achieve and public financing a waste of taxpayer dollars. "You, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer of New Jersey, you are going to foot the bill so politicians can keep their jobs," explained Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris.

The measure passed 52-18 in the Assembly, with nine members not voting. In the Senate the vote was 26-11.

Pay-to-play limits -- which advocates say is critical to any successful reform -- sparked the most lively debate. Sen. Bernard Kenny, D-Hudson, said his plan -- which would restrict campaign contributions from professionals who get contracts worth more than $17,500 from state, county or municipal government -- is not "the end, but the beginning of lasting reforms."

Assembly sponsor Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, called it the most comprehensive measure of its type in the nation.

But GOP lawmakers slammed the plan as riddled with loopholes, especially a clause designed to prevent "wheeling," the practice of moving campaign cash from county to county or organization to organization to avoid contribution limits. Republicans note the proposal only bans the practice for the first half of the year.

Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, said the bill was "laughable" and Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk, R-Bergen, included her objections in a rhyme that concluded: "It has more holes than creamy Swiss cheese."

Assemblyman Sean Kean, R-Monmouth, said that comparison would "demean the Swiss."

Criticism of the plan was not limited to Republicans. Sen. Ellen Karcher, D-Monmouth, who defeated longtime GOP Sen. John Bennett last year in a race that focused on ethics issues, and her running mates, Assemblymen Robert Morgan and Michael Panter, agreed the pay-to-play ban proposed by their colleagues didn't go far enough.

"Pay to play is not some abstract, distant evil," Karcher insisted. "It has a real impact on property taxes, our quality of life, and how we feel about issues in our community."

The pay-to-play restriction was approved by 21-17 in the Senate, with two members not voting. In the Assembly, the bill passed 46-30, with three absentions, around 8:30 p.m., after more than two hours of debate on this measure alone.

Members of the Assembly also spent time discussing a resolution that would create a commission to study dual-office holding among lawmakers. It was approved 69-10, while Senate leaders chose not to act on the measure.

Currently, eight senators and 14 Assembly members hold a second elective office.

A number of Republicans, including Assemblyman Joe Azzolina, R-Monmouth, and Merkt, called a study commission a cop-out.

"We are the study commission. That is why we are here," said Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Middlesex, Mercer. "We don't need another commission to tell us how to do our job. We should do our job."

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