TRENTON – Senate President Richard J. Codey (D-Essex) today announced a package of sweeping government reform proposals that will be taken up by the State Senate in the coming months. The seven-point plan is designed to enhance public confidence in the budget process by providing a more transparent opportunity for public scrutiny, and also restore confidence in state and local government operations through increased controls.
“By building on the ethics reforms adopted last session, these proposals will close some remaining loopholes and we can begin to help restore the public’s confidence in government,” said Sen. Codey. “These measures will also make the entire budget process more transparent and efficient.”
Ban Gifts to Legislators and Staff
Chief among the reforms Sen. Codey is proposing is an amendment to current laws that would completely ban gifts from lobbyists to legislators and legislative staff, regardless of their value. Current law allows gifts valued at up to $250 to be accepted.
Ban Political Contributions by Public Entities
Under a bill already sponsored by Sen. Ellen Karcher (D-Monmouth, Mercer), political contributions by all state and local public agencies and their subdivisions would be prohibited in order to prevent public funds from being used to influence the political process.
Expand Prohibition on Use of Campaign Funds
In light of a recent incident where campaign funds were funneled to a charitable organization connected to a former elected official, Sen. Codey is proposing an amendment to the current law that allows campaign funds to be donated to charitable organizations. The proposal would prohibit contributions to any charity of which the elected official or a family member is a paid employee or director.
Require Public Disclosure of Budget Revisions
Also chief among the reforms is a policy the Senate President intends to institute to create greater transparency and accountability during the budget drafting process and ensure that each spending item that ends up in the final budget is fully vetted. The policy will require all legislators and executive departments seeking any modifications to the Governor’s proposed budget to submit a written request to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee at least 10 to 14 days before the committee is scheduled to take action. The written request must include the amount of funding being requested, the recipient, purpose and any other supporting information. The requests would then be compiled by the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) and published for public review in advance of any consideration by the Senate Budget Committee.
Further enhancing these reforms is an additional proposal to tighten the current lobbying disclosure law to require lobbyists to include specific information in their ELEC reports about the budget modifications they are seeking on behalf of their clients. Current law only requires that a lobbyist disclose the name of their client and the nature of the work performed on their behalf, i.e. “budget request.”
“Adoption of the annual appropriations act is the legislature’s single most important responsibility. It is essential that the public have confidence in our decision making. Subjecting budget revisions to more public disclosure will move us in that direction,” added Sen. Codey.
Increased Ethics Training for Legislators and Staff
In an effort to enhance compliance with the Legislative Code of Ethics, Sen. Codey is proposing that all legislators be required to consult annually with an Ethics Counsel. All legislative staff would also be required to participate in annual ethics training, similar to the process in place for executive branch employees. Current law does not mandate training, but requires that a program be provided every even numbered year, which is currently done through a web-based program.
Expand Prohibition on Nepotism
Building on the current law which prohibits employment of relatives in the executive and legislative branches, Sen. Codey is proposing that this law be expanded to wipe out nepotism in local government units.
Independent Review of Legislative Ethics Code
In order to ensure that the current Legislative Code of Ethics is meeting its purpose, Dr. Alan Rosenthal, the respected Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, has agreed to lead an independent review. He will be aided in this effort by the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, with the goal of adopting any new recommendations by June 2007.
“Many of these proposals are also intrinsically linked to our ongoing efforts to provide property tax reform,” added Sen. Codey. “Real long-term relief requires tangible reforms that will reign in spending and abuses in the years to come. The time to act is now and the place to start is in our own house.”
Sen. Codey intends to request that all relevant Senate committees consider these proposals in the next few months, so that the Senate can take final legislative action before the annual budget break.