Monday, September 19, 2011

Christie To Legislature: Act On Ethics Reform

In September 2010, New Jersey Governor Christie outlined a rigorous and far-reaching reform agenda to overhaul ethics laws in the state and provide the high standards of integrity the people of New Jersey deserve at all levels of government. Precisely 376 days have passed since those proposals were put forth, and the Legislature has failed to act on any part of that agenda, including what State Comptroller Matthew Boxer last week called the “fatal flaw” loopholes in current pay-to-play laws, dual office holding, legislative disclosure of conflicts of interest, the practice of “wheeling” in campaign financing, and pension collection from elected officials who abuse the public trust.

“New Jerseyans deserve government with integrity that they can have faith in and be proud of. New Jersey’s ethics laws remain a patchwork of ineffective half measures and loopholes that fail to apply a uniform standard of rules of conduct for all levels of government in our state,” said Governor Christie. “It has been no fewer than 376 days since I delivered a package of real, rigorous ethics reform for the Legislature to act upon. The Legislature and its Democratic leadership have failed to take action on these proposals to strengthen the public trust. Excuses and inaction are unacceptable. It is time for them to act on these reforms, even if greater transparency and accountability makes some members uncomfortable.”

Last week, a report by State Comptroller Boxer derided the failure of the state’s pay-to-play laws to curb unethical practices associated with the awarding of public contracts to campaign contributors. Calling loopholes in the law that have been flagrantly exploited at the local level “fatal flaws,” the Comptroller’s scathing review made it crystal clear that the Governor’s reforms are needed.

On September 8, 2010, Governor Christie put forward a far-reaching, fair and tough package of ethics reforms to provide New Jerseyans the government they deserve, including a specific proposal to eliminate the “fair and open” loophole in the state’s pay-to-play law cited by the Comptroller’s report. These reforms included:

· A comprehensive legislative reform package which imposes a uniform standard for awarding contracts at all levels and branches of government in New Jersey, and expands the reach of the pay-to-play law to make public labor unions subject to the same contribution and disclosure obligations as other entities doing business with the State. The Governor’s proposal also restricts the practice of “wheeling,” or the transfer of political donations to circumvent campaign financing laws.

· Omnibus ethics legislation which ends dual government employment and dual office holding, requires forfeiture of pensions by convicted public officials, prohibits use of campaign funds for criminal defense costs, and redefines conflict of interest for legislators by making recusal mandatory for direct financial conflict (no more self-evaluation to determine whether the member “feels” there is or is not a conflict) and strict disclosure of legislative conflicts of interest.

At the same time the Governor introduced those reforms, he conditionally vetoed A-2768 to strengthen financial disclosure and to require the Legislature and its senior staff to file the same financial disclosure statements required of the Executive Branch. The original bill sought only to prevent the Governor and State Ethics Commission from extending the filing deadline for financial disclosure statements.

The Legislature has also failed to take up this commonsense conditional veto that would subject themselves to the same disclosures already in place covering the executive branch.

On March 16, 2011, Governor Christie went further with reform proposals to strengthen checks on the various authorities, boards and commissions that comprise New Jersey’s “shadow government” and collectively oversee over billions of dollars in public funds. The “Shadow Government Reform” legislation put forward by Governor Christie would have subjected a host of these entities to gubernatorial veto. As with the rest of Governor Christie’s efforts to strengthen good government practices and ethics in the state, the Legislature has flatly refused to act on this proposal since receiving the draft legislation from the Governor’s Office on March 30, 2011.

Despite the Legislature’s utter failure to deliver for the people of New Jersey on this ethics reform, Governor Christie has been proactive in moving pay-to-play reform by pressing municipalities to adopt pay-to-play ordinances. The Christie Administration included the requirement that municipalities receiving Transitional Aid adopt pay-to-play ordinances as part of their Memoranda of Understanding with the state, and included this as part of the Municipal Best Practices program through the Department of Community Affairs.

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