Part of ‘Government Reality Check’ Reforms, Five-Bill Package That Would Rein In Unnecessary Use Of Public Dollars
TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Donald Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester) to prevent the unnecessary use of public dollars at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates six tunnels and bridges between the states, the PATH rail system, marine terminals and ports, as well as airports in the region, was approved unanimously today by the Senate Transportation Committee.
The bill (S-520) is associated with the Government Reality Check Act, a five-bill package aimed at preventing spending and ethics abuses within all public bodies in New Jersey – from the Governor’s Office and the Legislature, to local governments, colleges, school districts and independent authorities. The reform bills would eliminate or sharply curtail spending associated with everything from official perks such as luxury car stipends and housing allowances to chauffeurs and government-issued credit cards. They would impose strict new ethics rules, such as a revolving-door policy banning officials from working with certain private employers for two years after leaving their government job, and create new standards of transparency and accountability.
“For too long government has been allowed to engage in rampant spending at the taxpayers’ expense, paying for everything from luxury cars to personal drivers and forcing the residents to pick up the tab. It’s well past time that we ended this culture of excess in government and required public entities at all levels to live within their means,” said Senator Norcross. “This package of bills will rein in unnecessary spending across government and ensure that entities that take in tax and toll dollars are held accountable to the people they serve.”
The legislation is one of five bills that together would rein in unbridled spending practices at all levels of government. The four additional bills would create similar guidelines for state and local public employees (S-516), as well as employees, officers and commissioners of the Delaware River Port Authority (S-517), the Delaware River and Bay Authority (S-518), and the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (S-519).
The proposal would:
• End Perks: Ban by statute perks such as free EZ-Pass transponders. It would end housing allowances, stop luxury vehicle stipends, eliminate personal drivers (beyond official police security details), and end government-issued credit cards.
• Impose Strict Travel Requirements: Require the commission’s board to approve employee travel in writing at a public meeting, except in emergent situations relating to commission business.
• Enforce Zero Tolerance on Gifts: No public employee or board member would be allowed to receive gifts, including meals, sporting tickets and entertainment expenses.
• Impose Revolving Door Policy: Any employee or board member in a decision-making role over public contracts will be prohibited from working for a vendor they have hired for a period of 2 years from leaving that office.
• Establish Tuition Reimbursement Restrictions: An employee or officer seeking tuition reimbursement must attend an accredited institution of higher education in state; the course must be directly related to the skills and knowledge required for the current position or required for a position to which the officer may be directly promoted; the employee must maintain at least a ‘C’ average for reimbursement, and maintain public employment for at least 5 years following the last reimbursement payment; reimbursement is limited to 50 percent of tuition.
The Port Authority recently raised tolls on the Hudson River spans from $8 to $9.50 for E-ZPass users and to $12 for commuters paying cash during peak hours. In addition, a recent audit of the authority called it a “challenged and dysfunctional organization” and laid out a number of problems including insufficient cost controls and a lack of transparent and effective oversight of major capital programs.
“Commuters who are now shelling out considerably more money to use the Hudson River crossings expect their toll money to be used responsibly,” said Senator Norcross. “This bill would better ensure that toll revenue is spent for a legitimate public purpose and will make certain that authority employees and those serving on the board are held to strict standards aimed at preventing financial and ethical abuses.”
Any public official or employee who violates the law would be subject to the penalties under the Conflicts of Interest Law, including a fine of up to $10,000 per offense and also potential suspension or removal from office. A public official or employee may be barred from holding public employment for a period of up to five years if the violator’s conduct is found to constitute a willful and continuous disregard of the prohibitions.
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.