FLEMINGTON, N.J. - Gov. Christie announced a series of proposals at a town-hall meeting Wednesday that would expand legislators' financial-disclosure requirements, crack down on conflicts of interest, and close loopholes in campaign-finance laws.
The governor, speaking at the Raritan Township hall in Hunterdon County, also called for an end to dual office-holding by the end of the 2010-11 legislative session, and for banning all state, county, and local officials and employees from receiving a second public salary.
The governor had promised ethics reform on the campaign trail while touting his record of prosecuting more than 130 public officials for corruption. He said Wednesday that he had initially worked on "more urgent" issues, such as closing the state's multibillion-dollar budget deficit, but that it was time to look at other problems.
Christie plans to outline a "reform agenda" at town halls this month that will address the state's pension, regulatory, and education systems.
New Jersey for the last 10 years has had "out-of-control spending, out-of-control taxes, and out-of-control debt," Christie said.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said in a statement that from a first reading of Christie's proposals, "there appear to be areas of likely agreement."
But he called on the governor to open the books of Reform New Jersey Now, a political organization tied to Christie's allies that Democrats have accused of skirting campaign-finance rules.
Fresh off last week's visit to the Delaware River Port Authority to press for stronger ethics measures, Christie drew applause as he took multiple jabs at the Legislature for not having already enacted what he described as common-sense reforms.
He also conditionally vetoed a bill that sought to prevent the governor and the state Ethics Commission from extending a filing deadline for financial-disclosure statements. Christie wants the Legislature and its senior staff to file the more detailed disclosure forms required of the executive branch.
One change that would affect South Jersey is the dual-office ban.
Sweeney has said he will leave his post as Gloucester County freeholder director by the end of the year, but a handful of dual officeholders remain after a 2007 law banning the practice grandfathered in current legislators.
Those include Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), who also is mayor of Paulsboro.
Burzichelli said that if voters thought his dual jobs were an issue, they would not have elected him repeatedly. He also said he had never found there to be a conflict of interest.
"I just think at a time where we have a high unemployment rate and we're desperately trying to figure out ways to put people back to work . . . discussions other than those points are just distractions," said Burzichelli, who receives a $49,000 salary for his legislative position and a little more than $6,000 as mayor.
The adoption of a law banning all public employees from accepting more than one government salary could also affect numerous people in South Jersey, though the administration did not answer questions seeking greater details.
David Luthman, for example, receives $128,500 as deputy executive director of the Pollution Control Financing Authority of Camden County in addition to a $30,000 salary to serve as Pennsauken prosecutor.
Robert Damminger makes $98,136 as deputy director of transportation services at the South Jersey Transportation Authority while also collecting a $17,000 salary as a Gloucester County freeholder.
In the Legislature, Fred Madden serves as a dean at Gloucester County College on top of his job as a Democratic senator representing parts of Gloucester and Camden Counties. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) holds a full-time job as Essex County administrator.
Some changes along the lines of Christie's proposals are under way.
Senate Democrats are ending their longtime practice of hiring outside part-time lawyers. The system enabled Michael Armstrong to be outside counsel at a pensionable salary of $25,000, on top of his jobs as solicitor to Willingboro Township and the Willingboro Municipal Utilities Authority.
But spokesman Derek Roseman said Armstrong and another outside lawyer, Doug Bern of Bergen County, recently had been sent letters informing them that their services would no longer be needed.
Christie is also taking a stab at closing campaign-finance loopholes with proposals that have been suggested by others but never adopted.
He wants to end the current system under which businesses can make campaign contributions to local and legislative elections and receive municipal and county government contracts of more than $17,500 as long as the agreements are awarded under a "fair and open" process. That means that contracts are publicly advertised and multiple bids are sought for professional services such as legal, engineering, and architectural work, though governments do not have to choose the lowest bidder.
The governor wants to bring that contracting process - along with campaign-donation restrictions - in line with far stricter practices in place at the state level.
"I'm shocked," Christie said sarcastically of legislators' exemption of their own campaign funds from the state pay-to-play law.
Other recommendations include limiting how much money county and municipal party committees can "wheel" to other campaign committees, especially those in other counties. Christie said it was a way to hide money and avert the law.
Christie also wants the Legislature to extend restrictions on campaign donations to labor unions that do public work - a strong source of support for Democratic lawmakers. An appeals court ruled in May that an executive order calling for those restrictions was unconstitutional, saying the matter was for the Legislature to decide.
Accountant Gregory Taranto, of Ringoes, Hunterdon County, said at least 20 percent of his clients had left New Jersey because of business regulations and taxes.
He expressed support for Christie's focus on ethics, saying: "The reason that we're in this hole is ethics. There has been so much corruption."
The first question at Wednesday's event came from Marie Corfield, a local teacher, who accused Christie of demonizing educators and balancing his budget on the backs of lower- and middle-class people.
The governor said the state had lost $1 billion in federal education funds while state revenues had also fallen, but the exchange became confrontational.
The governor drew applause when he questioned the justification for teachers' receiving raises of more than 4 percent at a time when many private-sector employees have been getting no pay increases.