Bribery and money laundering may be illegal for almost everyone else, but not for politicians. They call it "pay-to-play" and "wheeling." The party in power almost always benefits from these structural advantages, so politicians love to rail against corruption when they're powerless to do anything about it, but then sit on their hands and make excuses when they could actually change the system.
When Gov. Jim Florio proposed an ethics reform package in 1992 — partly to fulfill the campaign promises he had made three years earlier — Republican leaders who controlled both the Assembly and Senate criticized him, saying the plan was politically-motivated. Sound familiar?
During a decade of state-wide Republican control, pay-to-play and wheeling continued as Republicans easily out-raised Democrats. That is, until Jon Corzine ran for Senate (and later governor) and Democrats regained a majority in the legislature. Suddenly, fixing this broken and corrupt system became a top GOP priority and popular campaign refrain.
With the tables turned, Republicans introduced a series of reform measures in 2006 which Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman called a "warmed-over stew of existing legislative measures." Yes it was, but the stew had gotten pretty cold in the hands of Democrats.
In 2007, instead of working to pass a comprehensive ban on pay-to-play, Senate President Dick Codey pointed out that Republican-controlled towns hadn't passed laws banning the practice at the local level. Only somewhat true, and less than somewhat productive.
Assemblyman Merkt, who was elected in 1998 when Republicans controlled the legislative and executive branches, asked why it took so long for the governor to introduce the legislation. If Merkt was as dismayed about his own party's inaction on banning these practices back then, he kept it a closely guarded secret.
Assembly Republican leader Alex DeCroce applauded the move while noting: "We have been advocating for these reforms for years." On this, DeCroce and I have something in common — we've both been advocating for these reforms for years, and we both have almost zero control over the process. Still, this advocacy might have been more meaningful and effective if it had taken place between 1994 and 2001 when he served as deputy speaker.
Of course the timing of Corzine's proposal is political. Funny how it's always other politicians who feign the most surprise when politicians do things that are, uhhh … political in nature. Yet the same people who criticize Corzine for the timing of this announcement also like to pretend that their nearly presumptive gubernatorial candidate, our U.S. attorney, is above the fray of politics.
But the fact that politics plays into policy-making doesn't mean we shouldn't embrace good ideas and demand that the legislature do the same, even if the timing is politically expedient.
There is no reason this legislation shouldn't pass. In January, Codey and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts issued a joint statement to announce that they would "make a united push for loophole-free pay to play reform, a wheeling ban….". Looks like everyone should be on the same page.
Apparently, some have doubts that there may not be enough votes to pass the reform measures. Since the legislation plugs loopholes at the county and municipal level — where Republicans still firmly control government in some parts of the state — Republican opposition shouldn't be unexpected, particularly among those hailing from GOP strongholds like Ocean County.
On the other hand, when writing about a wheeling and pay-to-play ban in 2007, Senator Tom Kean Jr. claimed that all "18 Republican senators are united in support of these reforms." As long as everyone was being honest and Codey can get just three other Democrats to go along, he's got 21 votes and should have no trouble passing the legislation.
We've heard a lot of talk over the years on reform, but talk without action is cheaper than Lehman Brothers stock. Let's have a vote and let everyone lay their cards on the table once and for all.
Juan Melli is Politicker.com's associate editor.