Corzine says reform plan will end pay to play, enhance accountability

With just over a year to go before he’s up for reelection, Gov. Jon Corzine today released a comprehensive package that he said is the final piece of ethics reform that he outlined during his 2005 gubernatorial campaign.

Corzine promised that the plan — parts of which he’s already enacted through executive order and parts of which will require legislation– will “end pay-to-play once and for all, at all levels of government.”

“We have reached a point where New Jerseyans have come to believe that instead of government of, by and for the people, we have a government of, by and for political contributors, lobbyists and those who are at every level of pay to play,” said Corzine at an outdoor ceremony in front of the state house. “Today, that era ends.”

To prove his point, Corzine stood next to a checklist of his nine-point reform plan from his first campaign for governor. Assuming that the reforms outlined today were passed, each one was checked off.

“All this is about accountability – not just about laying down new rules. It’s also about enforcing,” he said.

Among the most dramatic reforms in the package is one that aims to permanently end the practice of wheeling, in which legislative leadership PACS, municipal committees and county committees can fill each others’ coffers.

Under the reforms, different county committees would be completely banned from contributing money to one another, instead of just for the first six months of the year. Likewise, municipal committees will no longer be able to donate to other municipal committees in outside counties.

Limits on individual and candidate donations to county committees would be reduce from $37,000 to $25,000, while leadership committee donations to county committees will be capped at $25,000.

While state, leadership, county and municipal committees use to be able to donate unlimited funds to political action committees, the reforms will cap them at $7,200. PAC donation limits to county committees will be reduced from $37,000 to $25,000.

Corzine has already issued executive orders creating a new ban on political donations by state redevelopers and tightening the law’s language on contributions from state contractors to include donations from partners in the firms to campaigns, leadership committees and municipal committees. He also issued an executive order creating a task force to examine whether the Local Government Ethics Law and State Conflicts of Interest Law are in-step.

The reforms would significantly diminish the power of leadership committees, which Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts has used to exert huge influence on Assembly campaigns – pouring millions into races across the state.

But Roberts stood next to Corzine today, saying that after he had to scrap the Clean Elections program for this year, he was eager to find other avenues to achieve reform.

He described the proposed pay to ban as one that is “top to bottom… iron-clad and is so carefully drawn that it will withstand a constitutional challenge.”

Corzine and Roberts both said that they expected bi-partisan support for the reform ideas – some of which has been covered in legislation that has not yet been passed. But no major Republican figures were present at today’s ceremony and even one prominent Democrat—Senate President Dick Codey, who also has a powerful leadership PAC – didn’t attend.

When asked about Codey’s absence by a reporter, Corzine said that the press was reading too much into it. Senate Democratic spokeswoman Jen Sciortino confirmed that Codey was fully behind the initiative, and chalked his absence up to a scheduling conflict.

Codey, for his part, issued a statement of support.

"The Governor should be applauded for his leadership on this front. Obviously, these are very serious issues that have been the subject of much debate in the legislature and will continue to be as we examine these newest proposals. We are committed to building on the progress we've made over the last several years and I look forward to tackling these issues with the legislature,” he said.

And while no Republicans were present at the ceremony, Corzine did brief legislators from both parties on the reforms earlier today.

Meanwhile, Republicans expressed cautious support of the Governor’s proposals – welcoming them, but wondering why they came three years into his term.

Some expressed off-the-record skepticism that a governor who had given $37,000 contributions to Democratic committees, and whose mother – who lives in Illinois – donated $37,000 to the Bergen County Democratic Organization while Corzine was running for Governor – was truly committed to reform.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) didn’t attend the event, but milled around beforehand and talked to attendees.

“We welcome Jon Corzine to the dance. My hope is we can get these proposals and more through the legislature this fall, and they don’t go the way of dual office-holding, which in the end exempted incumbents, borrowing without voter approval and the issue of school bonds,” he said.

Kean said that he didn’t see anything in writing, and wanted to see specifics before he made any judgment on the proposals. But he wouldn’t ascribe Corzine’s intentions to his upcoming reelection campaign.

“He campaigned on these issues. Governor McGreevey campaigned on these issues. We’ve been trying to keep them to their campaign promises for year,” said Kean. “It may be coincidental that it’s the third year of his term, but, I mean, political conversations are always interesting to watch.”

Freshman Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains) called the proposals “encouraging,” but said he would have to wait to tell if they were genuinely intentioned.

“I don’t know if it’s a political ploy or if it’s a genuine conversion to trying to move the ball forward on ethics,” he said. “But it is encouraging, and from my seat on the state government committee in the assembly, I look forward to working with members of both parties to address these key issues.”

Corzine says reform plan will end pay to play, enhance accountability