By Tom Hester, Sr. – October 12, 2010
A package of legislation aimed at preventing spending and ethics abuses at all levels of government in New Jersey has been introduced by Sen. Donald Norcorss (D-Camden) and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester.)
The five proposals represent the most comprehensive effort yet to eliminate excesses that cost taxpayers millions of dollars and to make everyone earning a public paycheck or serving on public boards more accountable for their actions, Norcross and Moriarty maintained Tuesday. The legislation would apply to every public employee from the governor and legislators to local fire districts and authorities.
The proposals are designed to reduce costs by eliminating or curtailing spending associated with everything from official perks such as luxury car stipends and housing allowances to personal drivers and government-issued credit cards. They would impose 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 they would establish new standards of transparency and accountability for all public bodies.
“The taxpayers have had enough,” Norcross said. “Government at every level must learn to live within its means, just as families across our state are forced to do every day. That means cutting the waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars resulting from patronage, perks and other excess spending.”
“It’s time to give government a reality check,” Moriarty said. “While the great majority of public employees are honest, diligent workers who serve the residents well, others have taken advantage of a system that offers too much opportunity for abuse. These reforms will require everyone drawing a taxpayer-funded paycheck to follow strict rules and regulations that will hold them accountable and, in effect, rein in wasteful spending that makes our state unaffordable for so many.”
The package of bills was prompted, in part, by the recent revelation that a Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) official had abused access to a free EZ-Pass transponder for his daughter to commute to college in Philadelphia.
As part of the legislation, Norcross and Moriarty are calling for the state legislatures in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware to adopt the same reforms for the bi-state agencies four of the bills address: the DRPA, the Delaware River Joint Bridge Toll Commission, the Delaware River and Bay Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The fifth bill applies to all state and local public bodies operating exclusively in New Jersey.
Norcross and Moriarty described the proposals are commonsense requirements. The changes, they said, would help restore public confidence in hundreds of public bodies that sometimes 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, except for 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. Travel by employees and board members of the state’s autonomous agencies, state colleges and universities would require written approval by each entity’s board at a public meeting. 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 two years from leaving that office.
Tuition reimbursement restrictions: An employee or officer seeking tuition reimbursement must attend an accredited institution of higher education in state; the course must be directly related to the skills and knowledge required for the current position or required for a position to which the officer may be directly promoted; the employee must maintain at least a ‘C’ average for reimbursement, and maintain public employment for at least 5 years following the last reimbursement payment; reimbursement is limited to 50 percent of tuition.
Any 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. An official or employee may be barred from holding public employment for a period of up to five years if the violator’s conduct is found to constitute a willful and continuous disregard of the prohibitions.
Norcross and Moriarty said the proposals are without precedent in that they would cover every public body from the highly visible governor’s office and state legislature 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, the lawmakers said.
“Even the perception of a conflict of interest compromises the public’s trust in government,” Norcross said. “These reforms will ensure a very clear line exists between someone’s private motivations and their commitment to the public interest.”
Norcross and Moriarty said their proposed laws are an important first step in tearing down the walls of secrecy that permeate the operations of 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.”
The bills are:
S2347 / A3880: “Government Reality Check Act”; prohibits public employers from providing certain benefits to public employees; restricts gifts to public employees; restricts travel by public employees; imposes post-employment restriction on public contracting employees.
S2348 / A3881: Imposes restrictions concerning DRPA commissioners, officers, and employees regarding employment, gifts, and compensation for travel.
S2349 / A3882: Imposes restrictions concerning Delaware River and Bay Authority commissioners, officers, and employees regarding employment, gifts, and compensation.
S2350 / A3883: Imposes restrictions concerning Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission commissioners, officers, and employees regarding employment, gifts, and compensation.
S2351 / A3884: Imposes restrictions concerning Port Authority NY/NJ commissioners, officers, and employees regarding employment, gifts, and compensation.