New Jersey… And How it Got That Way: March

Situation: Every level of government appears to be brimming with unethical officials who, as they conduct the public’s business, view entitlement, favoritism, and lawbreaking as routine.

Situation: Every level of government appears to be brimming with unethical officials who, as they conduct the public’s business, view entitlement, favoritism, and lawbreaking as routine.

Cause: Corruption in the state’s leadership dates to Colonial days, so its existence today should come as no surprise. Practices such as patronage, nepotism, and double-dipping characterized twentieth-century politics. But the continuing depth and breadth of official misconduct—sometimes for a pittance—and their blatant disregard for the general welfare are breathtaking. A 2004 study by the Corporate Crime Reporter listed New Jersey as the nation’s sixteenth most corrupt state. Protecting the public interest hasn’t kept pace as the amount of cash handled annually by local, county, and state government has grown into the tens of billions. The state Legislature sets a dismal example with its apparent inability to police itself and others—failing to enact effective regulations or otherwise adequately curb malfeasance. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and state attorney general increasingly take up the slack, moving against hundreds of elected, employed, or appointed officials with investigations, indictments, and imprisonment. (See chart at right.) But they cannot possibly uncover all illegal acts and punish every criminal.

How to fix:

1. Neuter county political machines. Who can legally accept the biggest contribution: a candidate, a local political party chairman, a county party committee, or a state party? Answer: a county party committee, to the tune of $37,000. That’s way more than state parties ($25,000), local chairmen ($7,200), or candidates ($2,600) may accept. That $37,000 limit, set in 1993, helped spawn today’s pay-to-play mess by giving county chairmen enormous bankrolls that they can steer toward favorite candidates at all levels.

Tackling public campaign finance and statewide pay to play may still fall short of wholesale reform if county powers aren’t addressed. County chairmen approve appointments at the state level, fostering favoritism in authorities.

Another crucial change that’s needed: Fill all Legislature vacancies by special election. How are they filled now? In certain circumstances, election districts’ neighborhood party representatives vote to fill the spot and circumvent primaries. Amazingly, about one-third of state legislators got their seats that way. One recent example: Byron Baer abruptly retired for health reasons in September 2005. Instead of sending interested parties to a primary, the Bergen County Democratic party, in a contentious vote, tapped Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg. She served the rest of Baer’s term and garnered his spot on the November ballot.

2. End double—and triple-dipping by jobholders. Conflict-of-interest concerns apply to the 39 legislators (of 120) with at least one other public job. Among them: Assemblyman Charles Epps Jr. (also Jersey City school superintendent) and state Senator Nicholas Sacco (also North Bergen Township mayor and assistant school superintendent). They each earn $49,000 (plus tidy benefits) as legislators—far less than for their other duties—but they consolidate their power with their state positions.
According to the state, about 5,000 individuals hold multiple public jobs, and taxpayers are likely to question how someone can adequately handle multiple positions that are geographically far apart or that serve potentially opposing constituencies.

Can’t a state of almost 9 million residents find a few thousand other suitable folks who will invest their full energies in those moonlighting jobs?

3. Practice zero tolerance. Any government official convicted of a crime or pleading guilty to criminal charges should be banned from public service (including consulting gigs) for life and forfeit all pension benefits. If the legislature fails to meet public expectations on ethical oversight, voters can show their displeasure in the November elections.

4. Adopt the country’s most stringent pay-to-play reforms. More than 60 municipalities have their own pay-to-play reforms, but some 500 communities still do not. Banning gifts and contributions to politicians—including payments to political action committees—from those who wish to do business with government will help restore taxpayer trust in government.

5. Overhaul campaign finance. The ever-increasing cost of campaigning precludes most people from running for office and endangers the independence of those who do. At the top of the state’s spending heap is last year’s Robert Menendez–Thomas Kean Jr. race for U.S. Senate. It cost their campaigns a combined $20 million—not to mention another $15 million from national party coffers. In contrast, the sums required to win municipal office are paltry. Yet even those amounts make candidates vulnerable to anyone hoping to turn monetary support into political or contractual might.

In the last three years, the Legislature has taken modest steps toward reform by testing public finance plans in a few districts. The voluntary plans ask candidates to amass several hundred donations of between $5 and $30 each before they’re eligible for public funding. Such plans emphasize grassroots campaigning—forums, debates, or door-to-door canvassing—while they eliminate financial and societal barriers for women, minorities, and those lacking a voice in either major party.
Enacting such a plan at every level across the state would free officials to concentrate on the interests of constituents and the state, not on special interests and financial supporters.

6. Add the Joint Legislative Commission to the State Ethics Commission. There are plenty of words one could use to describe the Legislature’s approach toward investigating itself, but robust and diligent are not among them. When it gathered last October for the first time in fifteen months, its members spent two hours simply selecting a chairman. In 35 years, the JLC has sanctioned only four legislators.
Governor Jon Corzine gave the Ethics Commission—created in 1973 for Executive Branch oversight and vested with the powers of investigation and hearing—additional juice when he made it the focus of his Executive Order No. 1. For the first time, that panel includes more citizens than public officials. In addition to the roughly 2,000 officials now required to file financial disclosure statements, Corzine’s order requires it of an additional 625 state officials, penalizes those with late or incomplete filings, and brings 30 more boards under its purview.

 

Click here to leave a comment
Read more History, Towns & Schools articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required
Required not shown
Required not shown