Roberts Defends Scope Of Pay-To-Play Reform

Lawmaker says ban affecting counties and municipalities would not pass

CourierPostOnline – Wednesday, March 30, 2004

Gannett New Jersey

NEPTUNE — Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts Jr. said that the pay-to-play reform Democrats have proposed for state government cannot be extended to counties or municipalities because such a widespread ban would not pass in the state Legislature.

In remarks to the Asbury Park Press editorial board Monday, Roberts, D-Camden, did not say which legislators opposed the broad pay-to-play reform called for by Democratic Gov. McGreevey and Republican leaders. He would only say he's discussed the matter with Sen. President Richard Codey, D-West Orange, and other lawmakers.

"There are a range of views in the Republican and Democratic caucuses, and those are strongly held private views," Roberts said. "It's my job to recognize the reality and fashion something that can pass. I have to focus on what can become a reality."

Republicans disputed that claim. The GOP leadership has been touting a pay-to-play reform bill that restricts campaign contributions by those doing business with municipal, county and state governments.

"It is clear to the casual observer that the Democratic leadership in the Assembly has blocked pay-to-play reform from the get-go," said state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., R-Westfield. "They continue to do the same even with this watered-down reform package."

A spokesman for Codey said he did not want to comment while there are ongoing negotiations with Assembly leaders. Gov. James E. McGreevey's office declined to comment.

Roberts has been criticized for his relationship to Democratic power broker George Norcross, formerly the Camden County Democratic chairman and one of the state's most powerful political bosses.

Roberts said Monday it was "conceivable" that he had talked to Norcross about the Democrats' 25-point reform package while it was being crafted. Roberts said the two are friends who talk "fairly regularly" on a number of topics.

Staci Berger, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, a government watchdog group, said legislators have been fickle about campaign finance and ethics reform in recent years, and she cannot clearly gauge their sentiments now.

"Over the last six years, there's been a lot of talk about supporting public campaign financing, but when there were opportunities to move a bill, nothing happened," Berger said.

Pay to play is the long-standing practice of giving campaign contributions with the expectation of getting no-bid government contracts in return. Businesses and professionals, such as attorneys and engineers, who do work with the government frequently make pay-to-play contributions to candidates at the local, county and state levels.

It is illegal for elected officials to provide a quid pro quo return for campaign contributions, but such direct links have almost never been proven by corruption investigators.

Two weeks ago, Roberts and about two dozen Assembly Democrats announced the 25-point government reform effort.

The package would ban no-bid contracts at the state level and restrict political contributions from companies and individuals doing business with the state.

But critics have pointed out that the package does not prohibit pay-to-play contributions made at the county or municipal level, which means donors could give to those committees as a roundabout way of helping state lawmakers.

Roberts contended that the reality is that no one gives money to a local political organization in hopes of influencing state lawmakers.

County political organizations are already some of the most successful fund-raising arms in the state, and the money they raise can be used to elect candidates at all levels. In some cases, county parties transfer large sums of money to each other, a practice that critics say is another way to circumvent campaign financing rules.

Roberts said that he believes county parties should be allowed to contribute funds to other counties to foster better "party-building."

The reform package also does not address the power of the legislative leadership Political Action Committees, which are controlled by party leaders in the Legislature. Lawmakers have long said that PACs give legislative leaders broad power because individual lawmakers need money from those PACs to win re-election.

Roberts said there are legitimate reasons for allowing state legislative leaders, such as himself and the Assembly speaker, to maintain their political influence through the legislative PACs.

Roberts said that strong PACs are only part of the leaders' power. Leaders also choose committee assignments and have the ability to advance or block bills. Nonetheless, politically powerful leaders are needed to maintain order in the Legislature, he said.

"The goal for (the leadership PACs) was for them to be an instrument of party cohesion," Roberts said. "The potential for the Legislature to be in confusion and disarray, if there wasn't party cohesion, is a negative."

Under Roberts' plan, a study commission would be set up to review dual office-holding by state legislators. About one in five lawmakers hold another elected or appointed office. Some ethics experts say holding two or more offices represents a conflict of interest, but Roberts said the public can decide whether that's an important issue.

"The public knows everything; they have the ability to make an enlightened judgment," Roberts said. "They've made a determination that person can do those two or three jobs."

Roberts also said he did not believe comprehensive pay-to-play reform that covered local governments could pass a U.S. Constitutional challenge. The Assembly Democratic office released an opinion from legislative counsel Albert Porroni that said a pay-to-play ordinance could be successfully challenged for violating the First Amendment protection for free speech.

At any rate, money from government vendors represents only a modest portion of the campaign contributions, Roberts said. Most contributions come from businesses and special interests looking to influence legislation, he said.

So the only way to fully eliminate the influence of campaign contributions is through taxpayer-financed campaigns, he said.

Roberts' reform plan proposes a pilot program that would pay for the public financing of campaigns in two legislative districts in 2005 general elections and four districts in the 2007 elections.

After those pilot programs are completed and evaluated, Roberts said he hoped the initiative would be applied to all legislative races.

"Political fund-raising is one of the things I detest most in this world," Roberts said. "Other legislators will tell you the same thing."

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