The Trentonian

Dems Unveil 25-Point Ethics Reform Plan

The Trentonian — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Staff Writer

Assembly Democrats unveiled a 25-point ethics reform proposal yesterday, just minutes after the governor's office made public documents requested by federal investigators in an ethics probe of a Democrat fund-raiser.

Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-West New York, and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, outlined the 25-point plan in an afternoon press conference at the State House.

"Today we are advocating the toughest pay-to-play measures in New Jersey," Roberts said. "This 25-point plan we have assembled is bold, unprecedented and extensive," Roberts said in touting the plan.

"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."

But Republicans took exception to Roberts' assertions concerning saying the proposals were filled with loopholes.

"A significant number of these reforms are very good," Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton, said. "I'd say 22 of the 25 are excellent, but the other three just don't go far enough. The pay-to-play ban and no-bid contracts ban don't include county and local governments--and they need to. That's not a loophole - its a tunnel, and we need to have these loopholes closed."

The cornerstone of the Democrat's plan includes a pay-to-play provision to ban the practice of awarding no-bid government contracts to political donors. The plan also includes a proposal to eliminate all no-bid contracts at the state level.

Republicans were not happy to see that other levels of government were not addressed in the Democrats' plan.

"We were told by the Democrats to wait for their proposal, and sadly it was not well worth the wait," said Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce, R-Parsippany-Troy Hills. "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."

Republicans were also unhappy to discover that the plan does not include a ban on dual office holding but instead calls for a study commission on the issue. Several key Democrats, including Assembly Speaker Sires, who is mayor of West New York and a Hudson County Assemblyman, currently hold more than one elected office.

"Dual office holding by legislators remains a festering problem that the majority is - plain and simple - afraid to tackle," said Assemblyman Rick Merkt, R-Mendham Township.

The plan would impose stricter restrictions on lawmakers, including prohibiting lawmakers from voting on bills that present a conflict of interest for them. The bills present an irony for Roberts, who last year, came under fire for pushing a bill that would allow optometrists to perform laser eye surgeries. At the time Roberts owned a substantial share of U.S. Vision, - which operates 600 locations with optometrists performing eye exams and prescribing eyeglasses and contact lenses.

Additionally, Democrat proposal would create a clean campaign pilot program for two legislative districts up for grabs in the 2005 election. "We think this is a major step forward to determining that clean elections can happen in New Jersey," Roberts said.

The long-accepted practice of having outside organizations, or seemingly independent groups, paying for issue advertisements during political campaigns would be banned under the proposal, and would also curb those annoying "robo-calls" made on behalf of candidates in hotly contested races.

The proposal would put New Jersey at the forefront of the nation by requiring fund-raisers to register with the state, require all cash contributions tobe reported and other contributions over $100.

"If we can require charities to register as fund-raiser, we can certainly expect political fund-raisers to register, too," said Roberts.

Borrowing ethics reforms measures from members within their caucus, Roberts and Sires proposed a measure that would close the revolving door at the State House that currently allows lawmakers and people in the governor's office to leave their office and return as lobbyists. The proposal would close that door for one year.

The proposal would expand a ban on nepotism to include the governor's office and several other ethical changes to that office.

But all the tough talk by the Democrat Assembly leaders yesterday about ethics reform may be for naught, inasmuch as Gov. Jim McGreevey yesterday reaffirmed his position that he would only sign ethics reform and pay-to-play measures that applied to all levels of government in the Garden State.

The proposal also calls for sweeping reforms that would effect lobbyists, including an expansion of the definition of lobbyist, increased lobbyist fees, random audits of lobbyists and a prohibition on lobbyists from working on a contingency basis.

Charles Webster is the State House Reporter for The Trentonian.

Copyright 2004 The Trentonian

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