With some fanfare, Gov. Jon Corzine announced on Sept. 24 a package of ethics reform legislation that addresses issues including campaign donors being rewarded with government contracts.
However, Corzine’s proposals drew criticism from local legislators last week, who complained that they weren’t consulted and that the laws will only favor wealthy political candidates.
Some of Corzine’s initiatives were issued by executive order, but others will be voted on during this year’s state legislative session by state senators and Assembly members.
Corzine, a Hoboken resident, had already implemented ethics initiatives in state government including banning multiple pensions and creating a state comptroller to oversee state finances.
Corzine said last week that his new reforms are meant to end “the insider deals, influence peddling, and self-interest of old politics.”
While there are already laws in place to limit contributions from certain contractors doing businesses with towns, the new legislation seeks to:
* Ban contributions by county or municipal committees to other county or municipal committees.
* Monitor state development contracts so contractors are receiving contracts because they are qualified and not because they made a donation.
* Appoint a task force to make recommendations on ethics enforcement.
Basically, if Corzine’s legislation passed, the only people who could donate to elections would be individuals, as well as contractors who didn’t seek to do business with the candidate or government body in question.
There are already state and federal guidelines limiting how much an individual can donate to a political campaign or committee.
For more on Corzine’s ethics reform package, visit: http://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/news/2008/approved/20080924a.html.
Hurts the poor?
But Corzine’s seemingly noble intentions aren’t cutting it locally.
One unnamed Hudson County official called the proposals “window dressing” and a “press op” last week.
Others said the legislation would only allow wealthy people like Corzine to run for office, because those candidates could rely on their considerable personal wealth and connections and wouldn’t need as many donations.
Newspapers across the state also have criticized Corzine, charging that he is only pursuing these ethics initiatives to combat polls showing him slipping in popularity less than a year before he is up for re-election.
Corzine speaks out
Corzine conducted a telephone press conference on Monday with New Jersey newspapers including the Hudson Reporter chain.
He said that he was influenced by the local efforts across the state such as in his “hometown” of Hoboken to put into law a pay-to-play statute in the last few years.
“Pay to Play” is the practice of contractors or businesspeople donating to political campaigns because it is perceived that it will help them get government work. While getting a job in exchange for a donation is illegal, it is often hard to prove the cause and effect. Thus, anti-pay to play laws simply cut the possibility of that happening by limiting the amount of money that vendors and contractors can contribute to someone they are doing business with.
Two years ago, the state Senate finally passed its own “Pay to Pay” reform bill. However, the regulations were weakened after legislative debates. As a result, approximately 60 New Jersey municipalities passed their own tougher restrictions, including Hoboken.
What local towns have done?
In addition, last month, the Jersey City City Council finally adopted a pay-to-play law in their town that had been pushed by Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop.
Corzine said that he hopes more of New Jersey’s 566 municipalities will pass such laws.
“It is very uneven across the state … if my memory serves me correct, there are only 60 of the 566 municipalities in the state are taking up these rules, and what we asking for is uniformity,” Corzine said.
He also said that the monitoring of state development contracts will save the state money.
Corzine said he is hoping to pass the legislation “sooner rather than later,” even as he admitted the challenges of keeping the legislation intact as it is debated by various officials.
“There will always be good lawyers that will figure out a way to get around this,” Corzine said.
‘Unconstitutional, or a ‘fresh thing’?
North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who is also a state senator representing New Jersey’s 32nd District, said he didn’t study the package that carefully. But he still gave a harsh assessment.
“It seems if he continues on this path, only the wealthy will be able to run for office in New Jersey, and this to me is unconstitutional on a federal level,” Sacco said. “I believe you are disenfranchising people, and a person like me or a person like [State Sen.] Sandra Cunningham could not [have] come up from the ranks.”
Sacco also blasted Corzine for not reaching out to state legislators like himself to discuss the ethics legislation.
Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy said he only found out about the legislation the day before Corzine made his announcement, and has not studied the entire package. But he agreed with Sacco that it would hurt the average candidate.
“It’s totally un-democratic if you take it that far, and I certainly can’t endorse it,” Healy said.
Meanwhile, Fulop was a little more optimistic.
“It would be a fresh thing for politics, as he proposing to change the way politics is done in New Jersey, Fulop said. “Especially he is taking on the party bosses, and that is very bold.”
Hoboken City Councilwoman Beth Mason, who is looking to implement a statute to ban multiple pensions for government employees in Hoboken, similar to one proposed in Jersey City, commended Corzine’s efforts, calling them a “no-brainer.”
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