Lawmakers Rewrite Campaign Finance, Ethics Rules

Newsday — Thursday, June 10, 2004

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — In an attempt to police themselves, legislators Thursday voted to limit campaign contributions and tighten regulations on lobbyists and government contractors.

Lawmakers also agreed to test a system that would use tax money to pay for legislative campaigns.

"Public funding of legislative races represents a sure fire way of keeping special interests out of the elective process," said Assemblyman Joseph Roberts, D-Camden.

Voters are distressed by that money and its influence, he said.

"We have the opportunity to reverse voters' cynicism," Roberts said. "We have the ability to confront it."

Democrats pushed their package of legislation, saying it would clean up elections and control the influence of money in politics.

Most prominent is a measure that limits campaign donations from those who seek government contracts. That would end the practice of pay-to-play, which activists say allows politically connected donors access to no-bid work.

The Senate approved that bill 25-17, and also cleared 13 other related bills. Assembly members were debating the measures late Thursday. Since Democrats control both houses, they were expected to pass.

GOP leaders, however, said the bills don't go far enough, and insisted any ethics reforms should apply to elected officials at all levels of government. Republicans have their own reform plan, but Democrats have not signed on.

"This is a sad and weak attempt to reform a practice that is rotten to the core. I again call on Governor McGreevey to fulfill his promise to the people of New Jersey and declare this dishonest bill dead on arrival," said Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon.

Government watchdogs also have faulted the reforms, but some praised the attempt at public funding for elections.

"We're thrilled," said Steve Bonime of Citizen Action. "This is the beginning of clean elections for New Jersey, the beginning of voters who have the choice of candidates who aren't beholden to special interest donors."

Gov. James E. McGreevey pushed legislators to expand the pay-to-play bills and he wanted ethics reforms passed by July 1. The governor also demanded that lawmakers include themselves in campaign disclosure laws, another bill that passed Thursday.

Although he supports the reform efforts, McGreevey will review the measures.

"We're happy with the progress on a lot of the key points the governor has made, but were going to take a look at it," McGreevey spokesman Micah Rasmussen said.

Ethics became a hot topic last year when Republican Senate President John O. Bennett and several other lawmakers lost re-election campaigns after ethics issues were raised.

Lawmakers have talked about reforms in the past. The Assembly agreed this year to bar its members from hiring family members. The Senate last year voted to limit contracts to donors, but that measure never cleared the Assembly.

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