Ethics Reforms Faulted

Critics: Toughen pay-to-play limits

CourierPostOnline — Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Courier-Post Staff

Legislation to limit the "corrosive" influence of money in politics will be debated Wednesday afternoon in Willingboro, but government watchdog groups say the proposals stop far short of real and comprehensive reform.

After two years of debate, the plan released Monday gives Gov. James E. McGreevey much less than what he's been demanding. The Assembly Democrats' reforms would stop contractors who want state government jobs from making donations to state campaigns. It's a practice known as "pay-to-play" because contractors often reap huge government fees after making political contributions.

But the legislation promoted by Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts, D-Camden, as "the most comprehensive reforms in 30 years" won't stop job-seekers from pumping millions into county political organizations.

And those organizations can still funnel money into other campaigns throughout the state.

That's a huge omission, Republicans say, and they complain the proposals fail to change a corrupt political culture. Roberts said there's nothing illegal about county parties raising big sums of money or sharing it with other candidates around the state. It's just smart politics, he said, calling it "party building" and an important tool to win elections.

Members of the public are invited Wednesday afternoon to share their opinions with the Assembly State Government Committee. The committee is holding a series of meetings around the state and will not vote on the proposed reforms.

Campaign finance records show just how powerful the county political organizations are.

For example, Camden County Democrats last year pumped more than $2.2 million into state Sen. Fred Madden's campaign. Madden, D-Washington Township, won the election for the Senate seat, with an annual salary of $49,000, by about 60 votes.

Campaign finance records show Burlington County Republicans donated more than $500,000 to candidates in other areas of the state last year.

And campaign records show South Jersey and Central Jersey Democrats poured more than $800,000 into a Bergen County race for county executive in 2002 to bring about a Democratic victory.

After Gannett newspapers, including the Courier-Post, published an eight-part series called "Profiting from Public Service" last year, members of the Assembly and Senate vowed to have campaign finance reform legislation on McGreevey's desk by July 1.

McGreevey, in a letter earlier this year to legislative leaders, demanded reforms that affect all levels of government - including powerful county political organizations.

Now that it appears the proposed reforms will be less than McGreevey said he wanted, don't expect the governor to cause a fuss, said Rider University political science professor David Rebovich.

Broader reforms would strip power from Democratic political bosses George E. Norcross III in South Jersey and from former state Sen. John Lynch in Middlesex County. They're two powerful allies McGreevey will need to win re-election in 2005.

"McGreevey's in a tough position on this. He does need support from Lynch and Norcross," said Rebovich. And if the governor holds out for stronger reforms, there's a chance the bosses and their allies will postpone action - and the Legislature will recess for the summer before July 1 without taking action.

For the governor, that's the worst scenario, Rebovich said.

"The governor realizes he's the guy who can get burned on this issue," said Rebovich. "He's going to have a great deal of trouble winning re-election if he's done nothing on the pay-to-play issue. . . . I think the Democrats are hopeful that partial reform will deflate citizens' concerns on the issue and get them through the next election cycle."

McGreevey's spokesman, Micah Rasmussen, said the governor favors ending pay-to-play at all levels of government. Rasmussen said he would not speculate on what McGreevey will do until legislation reaches his desk.

Common Cause, a national citizens' group, said the Assembly Democrats' initial proposals represent "a significant step forward" but don't go far enough.

"The Assembly Democratic leadership provides a wide-open back door for state contractors to practice pay-to-play," said Harry Pozycki, Common Cause's New Jersey chairman. "I hope this initial proposal will evolve during the legislative process." The group Citizen Action is also calling for more comprehensive reforms.

State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Westfield, has advocated more comprehensive reforms for more than a year.

"If people from Camden County feel that strongly about a race in Bergen County, they can donate to that campaign," said Kean. He said he believes county political organizations should be limited to donating no more than $7,200 to other elections - the same limit applied to other political action committees.

In an interview, Roberts defended the Assembly proposals, and he said proposals that seek to ban pay-to-play at all levels of government are "constitutionally flawed."

An opinion by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services questioned whether contractors could be banned from donating money to all campaigns, unless there's clear evidence of political corruption.

But more importantly, Roberts said, more comprehensive reforms are the wrong way to go.

County political organizations should be allowed to work for statewide victories for their political parties, he said.

"It's party building. It is completely legal," Roberts said. "If you're a county chairman, and you're committed to a statewide victory, a strong county helping another county is a very appropriate activity, and that can be defended."

Unless the flow of money from county political machines is controlled, the reform isn't real, said state Sen. Peter Inverso, R-Hamilton Township, Mercer County. Inverso and state Sen. John Adler, D-Cherry Hill, are co-sponsors of Senate Bill S119.

The bill seeks to limit "the corrosive perception among the electorate that the current system used to finance the election of candidates . . . at every level is either corrupt or making the corruption of individual public officials more likely." That's why the bill seeks to ban pay-to-play throughout all levels of government - from state races, to counties, to municipalities and school boards.

Inverso produced an opinion Monday by former state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein that said his bill would be constitutional.

At a state Senate Government Committee hearing on Monday, Inverso dismissed reforms supported by Roberts reforms as "a sham bill."

"It's shameful," said Inverso. Asked if he would vote for the Assembly Democrats' proposals if it's the best that can get through the Legislature by June 30, Inverso said, "I'd really have to think about it. It's one of those situations where sometimes no reform is better than sham reform."

But Adler, Inverso's co-sponsor on the tougher reforms, appeared resigned to settling for less-comprehensive reform.

"It is my preference to do it on every level. I voted twice to do that. But sometimes," said Adler, "you have to do things in smaller steps to get where you need to go."

"If it doesn't happen in one installment, I suspect it will happen in the second or third installment until we get it right for New Jersey," Adler said.

Earlier this year, Roberts and Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-West New York, proposed a 25-point reform effort. No sponsors for the bills have been announced.

The next package of reforms, which would use tax dollars to finance elections, will be unveiled during a committee hearing, tentatively scheduled for the third week in May in Essex County.

That proposal would use public funds to finance elections in two legislative districts in the state that have not yet been identified.

Roberts said the proposal to use tax dollars instead of campaign donations is called the "clean election law," and it is based on programs in Maine and Arizona.

Roberts visited Maine last week and said more than 60 percent of the lawmakers accepted public funds and did not use private donations to win election.

"I think if we're going to be honest with the people of New Jersey and come up with real reform," Roberts said, "pay-to-play needs to be one component of our package. But it cannot be the only component."

Steve Bonime of Citizen Action said his group endorses comprehensive pay-to-play reform at all levels of government.

"But the really important reform," he said, "is the clean election law." That's the best way, he said, "to get money out of politics."

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