Landmark ‘Government Reality Check Act’ Takes Aim At Runaway Perks That Cost Taxpayers Millions; Strict New Ethics Guidelines Also Created; Reforms Would Cover ALL Levels of Government and Autonomous Agencies
TRENTON – Two legislators called today for a statewide offensive against spending and ethics abuses by enacting sweeping reforms that would apply to ALL public bodies – from the Governor’s Office and the Legislature on down to county and local governments, state and county colleges and universities, school and fire districts, and including all independent state, county, and local authorities in New Jersey.
The proposed law, sponsored by State Senator Donald Norcross (D-5, Camden/Gloucester) and State Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-4, Gloucester/Camden), represents the most comprehensive effort yet to eliminate excesses that cost taxpayers untold millions of dollars and to make everyone earning a public paycheck or serving on public boards more accountable for their actions.
The far-reaching law would reduce costs by eliminating or sharply curtailing spending associated with everything from official perks such as luxury car stipends and housing allowances to personal drivers and government-issued credit cards. It would impose strict new ethics standards, such as a revolving-door policy banning officials from working with certain private employers for two years after leaving their government job. And it would establish new standards of transparency and accountability for all public bodies.
“The taxpayers of New Jersey have spoken loud and clear. They are demanding that government wake up and live within its means, just like they and their families must do every day,” said Norcross. “That means cutting the waste of taxpayer dollars due to patronage, perks and other excess spending.”
“It’s time to cut up the government credit card,” said Moriarty. “This law will be a reality check for all public officials and employees. While the great majority of them are honest, diligent workers who serve the public well, others have taken advantage of a system that offers too much opportunity for abuse.”
The reform bill is a response, in part, to the recent revelation that a Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) official had abused access to a free EZ-Pass transponder for a family member. It is those kinds of perks — and the process that permits them, that the reforms are intended to do away with. As part of this legislation, Norcross and Moriarty are calling for the state legislatures in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware to adopt the same reforms for such bi-state agencies as DRPA, Delaware River Joint Bridge Toll Commission, the Delaware River and Bay Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, among others.
Norcross and Moriarty said the proposals were commonsense requirements. The reforms, they said, will help restore public confidence in hundreds of public bodies that all too often live beyond their means.
The proposals would:
-Ban perks such as free EZ-Pass transponders. It would end housing allowances for college presidents, authority executives, or any public employee, stop luxury vehicle stipends, eliminate personal drivers (beyond official police security details), and end government-issued credit cards at all levels of government in New Jersey.
-Require the Governor’s office to approve travel only for essential state purposes for all executive branch employees as well as employees and board members of the state’s autonomous agencies, state colleges and universities. The Legislature already has a mechanism in place for the Senate President and Assembly Speaker to approve all official travel for members in their respective chambers. The law would also restructure the approval process for county and local level official travel for boards, commissions, and authorities, as well as school and fire districts.
-Zero Tolerance on Gifts: No public employee or elected official at any level of government would be allowed to receive gifts, including meals, sporting tickets and entertainment expenses.
-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.
-Any public official or employee who violated the law would be subject to the penalties under the Conflicts of Interest Law, including up to $10,000 per offense and also potential suspension or removal from office.
The reforms are without precedent in that they would cover every public body from the highly visible governor’s office and state legislature, state colleges and universities, to the more obscure local school boards and fire districts. They would apply to state, county and local governments, as well as to the dozens of autonomous public authorities, agencies and commissions that operate with little oversight and public input. Constitutionally, the Judicial branch must govern itself, but should apply the same rules on its own.
“There must be a very clear line between someone’s private motivations and their commitment to the public interest,” Norcross said. “There cannot even be the perception of a conflict of interest.”
Norcross and Moriarty said their proposed law is an important first step in tearing down the walls of secrecy that permeate the operations of those independent authorities and agencies.
“They should be held to the same standards of openness and accountability required of state, local and county governments,” Moriarty said. “They are, after all, spending the public’s money – and the public has the right to know that their tax dollars are being spent appropriately.”