It’s not just dual officeholders who compromise the proper functioning of government in New Jersey.Some of the700 elected state, county and municipal officials who alsohold public sector jobs can also cause problems.They may well be an important reasonwhy despite citizens’ complaints, politicians have not, for example,enacted property tax reform ormore aggressively foughtwaste and inefficiencyin state government or in thenearly 1,200 substate jurisdictions in New Jersey.
So suggest Tom O’Neill and Bill Schluter in their fascinating new report, “How Much is Enough? Drawing the Line on Multiple Public Job Holding in New Jersey.” Their research was commissioned by New Jersey Policy Perspective, the Trenton think tank headed by Jon Shure that tackles toughtopics and doesn’t mind shaking up the political establishment. And doing the latteris preciselywhat the O’Neill-Schluter report does. The authors argue thatmany of the people who hold elected office and another non-elected public sector position may wellhave a “..serious conflict of interest and obligation” and pose “…a threat to government performance and trustworthiness…”
Now O’Neill and Schluter are not investigative reporters looking to blow the whistle on individual politicians. They do, however, mention some elected officials who had one or more publicsector jobs and ran into trouble with the law.Nearly every other lawmakerwith a government job would no doubt object tothe suggestion that theyhave tried to use their political power for personal gain, much less that they arepart of what’s wrong with politics in New Jersey. After all, if their constituents had a problem with their performance as office-holders or with the fact that they also had a public sector job, they could vote for someone else.
According to O’Neill and Schluter, it’s not that simple. First, the average citizen may not be aware of whom has multiple government positions and what problems may result from the practice. Second, in municipalities, counties and legislative districts that are dominated by one party, voters may feel they don’t have much of a choice on election day or are simply not interested in supporting a candidatefromthe opposition party. In any event, the O’Neill-Schluter report endeavors to educate citizens about how many politicians in New Jersey combine elected and non-elected job-holding.Thenthe authorsassess the practice’s effects ongovernment and recommend some standards forthe combinations of elected offices and public jobs that should and should not be permitted.
Extrapolating from a sample survey, O’Neill and Schluter conclude that about 20 percent ofNew Jersey’selected officials, including 600 at the local level, have a least one other government job or position. This compares tothe 14 percent of all workers inNew Jerseywhoare public employees. One third of these elected officials withother government jobswork in education, 20 percent in county government, 10 percent in state agencies, and 14 percent in public authorities. In the state’sten largest municipalities,more than one-half of the elected officials alsohold another government job.
At the county level, a whopping 41 percent of New Jersey’s 137 freeholders have another public sector job – 22 in local government and 18 in education. And in 2006, 12 of the 40 state senators and 26 of the 80 membersof the general assembly also hadjobs in county and local government, colleges and public schools. Thus, 31 percent of the state legislators are”government employees,” more than twice the percent of public employees in the state’s workforce.
These numbers are surprising and would probably upset the average New Jerseyan. After all, a Quinnipiac Poll shows that 79 percent of voters believe that state legislators should not be permitted to have another government job of any kind.People may be primarily concerned about double-dipping and pension padding or the possibility that elected officials are using their politicalpower toobtain jobs. O’Neill and Schluter raise that latter point and also ask if it easier for public employees to get time off from work to campaign for elected offices.
There are other, less obviousproblems that the practice of allowing elected officials to hold certain government jobs may cause.Because of their political power, elected officialsmay not be held accountable for their performance in their other government jobs. The doctrine of the separation of powers maybe compromised if those who pass laws also enforce laws in their government jobs. And, if government workershold electedpositions that require them to vote on budgets,citizens may wonder if their tax dollars are beingallocated wisely or to protect some lawmaker’s government job or create one for an elected official.
In addition, the report notes that the large number of elected officials with government jobs “…blocks the political ladder for emerging aspirants by concentrating political power.” In particular, females, members of minority groups,and working class people may have fewer opportunities to be nominated to run for elected office or to obtain government jobs. A more complex problem is that by having so many elected officials with government jobs, the “…tone of public life may be degraded…” Officeholderswho got government jobs because of their political connectionsmay feel obligated to placate party bosses and leadersto keeptheir elected offices. On these terms,thesepoliticians maybe doubly motivated to support policies that benefit their party’s establishment, not necessarily their constituents or the general public.
O’Neill and Schluter recommend some interesting reforms, but also issue a few important caveats. They propose that combining elected and non-elected positions should be banned only where “the obligations of office clash and where conflicts of obligation or interest become inescapable.” A blatant example of the latter is when an officeholder votes on laws and then has the authority in a government job to enforce those laws. Another case involvesadministrative personnel, like school superintendents, who have significant discretion and supervisory responsibility todirect the work of others.
They are also concerned about public officials with “low show” jobs that enable them to draw a government salary while performing their duties as elected officials. Think of the school administrator who is also a legislator. Then thereare those elected officials who receive a government job after they have entered office.Does this represent an abuse ofpower? Another practice that needsto be addressed is whenelected officialsseek campaign donations from public employees who they supervise, or otherwise have influence over,in their second jobs in government.
However, the report does not recommend a blanket banning of public employees from elected positions. On the contrary, O’Neill and Schluter believe that government workers, like any group in society, should have the opportunity to elect oneof their own to office, as long as the conflicts detailed aboveare not created by having a public employee serve in an elected office.But, the authors assert that requiring that “…all public officials…come from the private sector…would distort the perspectives of elected bodies even more severely than the current overrepresentation of those from the public sector.”
That being said, New Jerseyans who do not work in the public sector – and that’s 86 percent of the state’s workers – should look closely at the backgrounds of anyone who is running for public office.These daysmostresidents say their biggest concern is high property taxes, the flip side of high spending on schools and municipal and county governments. One way to try tocutspending down is todecrease the number of jurisdictions and public sector jobs. Another is keep salary increases of public sector employees to a minimum and put theirbenefits in line with what private sector employees receive. It’s hard to imagine that many elected officials with government jobs willseriously considersuch measures even if budget pressures and broad public opinion suggest they do.Events of the last year prove that point.
David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics(www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEWJERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.