Assembly Democrats News

Sires/Roberts Unveil 'Restoring The Public's Trust' 25-Point Ethics Reform Package

Comprehensive Initiative Would Impose Nation's Toughest Pay-to-Play Ban; Make New Jersey First State To Ban No-Bid Contracts

Assembly Democrats News Release — Tuesday, March 16, 2004

For Release:
March 16, 2004
Speaker Sires
Majority Leader Roberts
Press office
(609) 292-7065

TRENTON — Assembly Speaker Albio Sires and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts Jr. today unveiled the outlines of a comprehensive ethics reform package that would impose the toughest pay-to-play ban among the 50 states, require all state contracts to be put to bid, and create a Clean Election pilot program for legislative races.

Entitled "Restoring the Public's Trust," the sweeping initiative includes 25 reforms in public contracting, campaign financing, legislative disclosure, and ethical conduct by legislators and other top state officials. Provisions in the package would raise the bar for behavior by state legislators and set an example of management and performance to be followed by counties, municipalities, and school boards.

"This package will help to heal the erosion of public faith in New Jersey government," said Sires (D-Hudson). "The people of New Jersey demand and deserve the highest level of ethical behavior from their public officials - and that is just what we are going to give them."

"This 25-point plan we have assembled is bold, unprecedented, and extensive," said Roberts (D-Camden). "New Jerseyans are tired of all the grandstanding, parliamentary games and blame-trading that has occurred on the issue of ethics reform. This plan opens a new legislative front that will enable New Jersey to take a giant leap to the top of the class in ethics reform."

Accompanied by several advocacy groups and 12 Assembly members who pushed leadership to amass an ethics reform plan in recent months, Sires and Roberts said they would seek to secure passage before the Legislature breaks for its summer recess at the end of June.

The rollout of the plan delivers on promises Sires and Roberts made in November and reaffirmed in January when they vowed to make ethics reform a priority issue in the previous lame-duck legislative session and the new two-year legislative session that began January 13.

The package includes components that would do the following:

Sires said the package represents "the new reality" in the ethics debate at the State House. "This is not another set of proposals being put forward for purposes of political theater or partisan advantage," said Sires. "This is an historic reform package that is going to move through the legislative process."

Sires said a lot of people can and should claim credit for components of the package.

"Citizen advocacy groups, legislators from both sides of the political aisle, and crusading news organizations all applied pressure that helped to put ethics reform at the top of the agenda at the State House," said Sires.

He said the package builds on the three ethics-related measures that passed with bipartisan support at the close of the last legislative session in early January. Those bills established a ban on nepotism in legislative district offices, prohibited lawmakers from participating in multiple taxpayer-subsidized health-care plans, and placed stricter restrictions on the acceptance of gifts by legislators.

Roberts said the 25-point plan "represents an opportunity for restoring public confidence in how New Jersey government works."

The proposed reforms begin with pay-to-play reform and no-bid contracts.

Under the initiative, any business entity entering into a contract worth more than $17,500 with the state, any state agency, or any state authority would be prohibited from contributing to those with ultimate responsibility over the contract, in addition to any state party committees. The restriction would apply to all contributions made within a year prior to negotiations for a state contract.

The measure would give municipalities and counties specific statutory authority to adopt their own pay-to-play ordinances. Counties and towns that embrace pay-to-play restrictions would have enhanced eligibility for discretionary aid provided through the state Department of Community Affairs.

The proposed New Jersey restriction would put the state ahead of Ohio, which is now considered to have the country's toughest pay-to-play statute. The Ohio ban does not apply to no-bid contracts, state party committees, or state authorities.

Sires said the proposed pay-to-play provisions would "use New Jersey's state government to serve as a catalyst for change at other levels of government."

The reform plan also would end no-bid contracting at the state level.

Under this provision, the state, any state agency, and any state authority would be prohibited from awarding no-bid contracts, and counties and municipalities would be given specific statutory authority to adopt their own ordinances banning no-bid contracts.

According the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of State Procurement Officials, New Jersey would be the first state to enact such a ban.

Roberts credited Governor McGreevey and first-term Assemblymen Michael Panter and Dr. Robert Morgan (both D-Monmouth, Mercer) for recommending that the ethics reform package include a no-bid contract prohibition.

"We're banning no-bid contracts and applying pay-to-play restrictions to all state contracts," said Roberts. "These are very significant changes that should receive bipartisan support."

A recommendation from the advocacy group Citizen Action also is embraced in the plan: a Clean Elections pilot program for legislative races.

Under this measure, two legislative districts would be selected to test the use of public financing in the 2005 general election. The pilot program would be modeled on similar programs in Maine and Arizona.

To qualify as a clean elections candidate, participants must meet a threshold amount of small contributions raised from a large number of donors from within the district. They would be required to engage in at least two debates and they would receive an insignia next to their names on voting ballots and all materials identifying them as clean election candidates.

"Clean candidates" would qualify for public financing based on average expenditures in their districts during recent elections. Non-participating candidates would forfeit their allocations to participating candidates.

A commission would be formed to assess the 2005 pilot experience. The measure would allow four legislative districts to use the clean-election concept in the 2007 elections, including both the primary and general contests.

Sires and Roberts began constructing the plan shortly after the Assembly's organization ceremonies on January 13. They held their first meeting with citizen advocacy groups on January 22 and began crafting the package over the course of the ensuing 53 days.

Subsequently, Roberts met with lawmakers from both major political parties who have expressed an interest on the issue. Roberts also oversaw a research effort that examined laws that other states have enacted regarding ethics, public contracting, financial disclosure, and campaign finance reform.

Sires said members who won election to the Legislature based in part on their positions regarding ethics reform - notably Panter, Morgan, and Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex, Mercer) - played pivotal roles in the process.

Other members who are expected to figure prominently in sponsoring portions of the plan include: Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), Assemblyman Fred Scalera (D-Essex), Assemblywoman Joan Voss (D-Bergen), Assemblyman Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen (D-Union) and Assemblyman Joe Vas (D-Middlesex).

Copyright 2004 Assembly Democratic Majority

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