After years of inattention to ethics and campaign finance reform, Governor Corzine has proposed measures he says will rein in the abusive "pay-to-play" system that plagues state and local government. The proposals are welcome, but they fall short of the real change we need in New Jersey.
The practice of pay-to-play -- where businesses and law firms contribute to candidates who in turn reward their backers with lucrative no-bid contracts -- is still too common despite years of promised reform by the Governor and legislative leadership. So is wheeling, which is the movement of vast sums of money by political bosses from county to county to sway local elections.
Pay-to-play and wheeling prevent merit-based decision-making by state and local governments, and subvert the entire electoral process. They take the government away from the people and put into the hands of the powerful few.
Every so often, when the public trust has been battered by yet another scandal or indictment, Trenton leadership trots out poll-tested half-measures in an attempt to pacify angry voters. In the end, meaningful progress isn’t achieved and business as usual continues in Trenton.
Governor Corzine’s new reform package, brought out to bolster his image as he begins his 2009 re-election campaign, will chip away at the problem. However, while his plan would restrict contributions made by government vendors and modestly scale back the influence of the county political parties, it will not curb the influence of the special interests.
That is why I, along with co-sponsors Senators Steven Oroho and Christopher “Kip” Bateman, have introduced legislation that would fill the most-yawning gaps in the Governor’s plan. Our legislation attacks the problem at its core by establishing overall, or aggregate, contribution limits.
The legislation would curb the contributions of wealthy individuals and continuing political committees, often referred to by the outdated acronym of PACs. This will seal off prime sources of special interest money that will inevitably grow in influence as traditional pay-to-play contributions decline. Our bill also injects a measure of fairness into rules for funding the election of the governor.
Reining in the ability of special interests to flood th e political system with money would add real teeth to campaign finance law. In the 2007 election cycle, the top groups in terms of special interest contributions were PACs run by public employee unions, trial lawyers and other interest groups. The Governor’s plan does nothing to curb the influence of PACs. The governor also would continue to allow contributions by an extraordinarily wealthy person to a wide range of political entities.
Our legislation, which is based on proven federal law, would restrict campaign donations by individuals, corporations, PACS and labor unions made to candidate committees to a total of $15,000 in a single year. It would also cap total annual contributions by individuals, corporations, labor unions and PACs made to political party committees, legislative leadership committees and other PACs to $50,000.
Right now, state law has few limits on contributions by these groups. There is no reason that voters should allow these special interests to wield so much power that they can drown out the voices of average citizens.
In addition, our legislation aims to strengthen our public financing system to create a more-level playing field for candidates for governor. Any candidate who accepts fair restrictions and public financing will receive a greater match from the Gubernatorial Elections Fund if she or he faces a candidate who does not participate in public financing. This is a common-sense reform designed to broaden the number of candidates who can run for governor. The bigger the field of candidates, the better choice for voters.
Senate Republicans stand ready to work with the Governor to achieve real ethics reforms, but the time for ineffective half-measures is offer.
There’s been a lot of talk about the need for change. It can’t just be talk. In our state, the change we want is an end to the yearning for an honest, efficient and effective state government that citizens can be proud of. This ethics reform package will bring us closer to that goal.