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Whatever happened to N.J. ethics reform?

Eight months after Gov. Corzine promised to push comprehensive campaign-finance and contracting limits into law, key parts of his ethics-reform pledge are languishing in the Legislature.

Eight months after Gov. Corzine promised to push comprehensive campaign-finance and contracting limits into law, key parts of his ethics-reform pledge are languishing in the Legislature.

Top Democrats in the Senate and Assembly said they did not expect to act on Corzine's "pay-to-play" restrictions before the traditional summer break at the end of June and did not know when they would.

In his 2005 campaign and again at a high-profile September news conference, Corzine said he would tighten rules on campaign donors seeking government contracts. A significant piece of his plan called for tougher restrictions on municipal and county bodies and an end to "wheeling," a method political committees use to shift unlimited amounts of money around the state and evade contribution limits.

Both initiatives require approval from the Democratic-controlled Legislature, but there has been no action on them since the news conference, frustrating advocates who want to see more effort from Corzine.

"It's time for the governor to step up. It's time to exercise his leadership," said Heather Taylor, spokeswoman for the Citizens' Campaign, which praised Corzine when he announced his push. "It's something he needs to deliver on."

Deliver is a word that played prominently the day Corzine promised to enact an ethics overhaul. In a campaign-like atmosphere with cabinet members on hand, he pointed to a sign with a list of ethics-related campaign pledges and check marks next to them under the heading "delivered."

That day he sealed state-level pay-to-play loopholes with executive orders and expanded rules to cover developers working with the state. Citizens' Campaign chairman Harry Pozycki said at the time that Corzine had done as much as he legally could on his own.

But Corzine, who has frequently said the economy is his number-one concern, has done little publicly to press ethics issues since then.

Republicans then, and now, said he was better at making promises than following through.

Corzine spokesman Robert Corrales said the governor had signed laws or executive orders "on a full range of ethics issues," such as strengthening financial disclosure, ending pension abuses, barring dual office-holding, and creating an independent comptroller to audit government.

"The governor will continue to take bold action through executive orders and with the Legislature to make government more open, honest, and accountable," Corrales wrote in an e-mail.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) and Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts (D., Camden) said discussions about the details of the ethics package were continuing. In December each predicted compromise early this year, but in recent interviews both said lawmakers had been focused on the state budget and financial crisis.

"We've spent an enormous amount of time trying to build consensus both in the Assembly and with the Senate and made some progress, but, candidly, we've been singularly focused on the economic challenges we've been facing," Roberts said. "Issues one, two, and three are the economy."

Roberts, who stood with Corzine at last year's news conference, would not put a timetable on when an ethics package might be approved. He said that Democrats had already approved many changes, and that some lawmakers wanted to give those rules a chance to work.

Codey, also saying lawmakers' attention has been set on the economy, said there would not be action on ethics proposals this spring. He also would not say whether any movement was likely by the end of the year.

"When you're dealing with a $6 billion deficit, that should be your priority," Codey said.

Good-government groups say pay-to-play - rewarding campaign donors with contracts - can inflate the cost of government.

Several laws, combined with Corzine's executive orders, aim to block the practice by barring vendors from winning state contracts if they donate to state, county, or municipal political organizations.

But without further action, the Citizens' Campaign said, political players can get around the bans by, for example, donating to a state-level political organization and then winning a contract from the party's local allies.

Corzine's plan would eliminate this and other ways of skirting the restrictions.

Sen. Bill Baroni (R., Mercer) said ethics reform was an economic issue. Without safeguards, he argued, the cost of government grows. Baroni said that he had proposed a bill that would accomplish what Corzine promised, and that Republicans would support the governor's plan if it was ever put up for a vote.

"For all the talk in the governor's [campaign kick-off] speech, the bill exists that he called for, and there's been no movement from the leadership," Baroni said. "When we discuss cutting government, cutting government waste, you have to discuss corruption because corruption is a tax on the people of New Jersey."

Ethics are likely to figure in this year's gubernatorial campaign. Republican candidate Christopher J. Christie made his name as a U.S. attorney who led more than 100 successful corruption prosecutions.

Corzine's reform push was widely seen as an attempt to counter Christie's perceived strength on the issue.

Codey said Democrats in the last four years had passed more good-government bills than in any previous span. Some lawmakers, he said, worry that further restrictions on fund-raising would make it impossible for average candidates to seek office, leaving election fields to the rich who can pay for campaigns themselves.

"Are you further squeezing the average citizen out of running for public office? Are you enabling more rich people to take over government?" Codey said.