State Senate President Richard J. Codey said yesterday the Senate would advance ethics reforms early next year, but he suggested changes to Gov. Corzine's sweeping September proposal were likely.
Codey, an Essex County Democrat, said lawmakers and the administration were working on a compromise that would move forward "the guts" of the governor's plan. But he said not everything Corzine proposed would be approved.
"Over the last month or so there's been a lot of discussion between the houses of the Legislature and the governor on the bills to hopefully come to an agreement on what they should look like as they go forward," Codey said in Woodbridge, where Corzine and Democratic and Republican leaders gathered for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association's public-policy forum. "The general meat of what he talked about will be included."
Corzine, who promised comprehensive ethics changes when he campaigned for governor in 2005, has called for closing loopholes in bans on "pay to play" - rewarding campaign donors with lucrative government contracts - and "wheeling" - a technique that lets donors evade contribution limits by cycling their money through political committees.
With a spate of ethics scandals tarring Democrats in recent years, the issue is likely to play a role in next year's gubernatorial election, and Corzine said he did not want to move far from his original plan.
"Compromising very far away from what I talked about I think is not a very good idea," he said.
Corzine's plan would significantly curb wheeling, although it would leave open the ability of some groups to continue passing out campaign cash.
Codey said he did not expect a complete wheeling ban, but "at the very least severe restrictions."
Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden) noted the importance of tightening rules on wheeling.
"It's a vital component of whether or not we have real, true pay-to-play reform that works. If candidates have the ability to simply evade the rules by moving money from one source to the other, we've achieved nothing, and I'm very, very mindful of that," Roberts said.
He said he hoped some changes could begin to move through the Assembly by the end of the year, although only one hearing date - Monday - remains on the calendar.
Codey and Roberts said any new restrictions on raising political cash must be balanced against the interests of candidates who aren't rich enough to fund their own campaigns. Many lawmakers worry that if government contractors are prohibited from making contributions, only wealthy candidates who can fund their own campaigns would be able to get their messages out.
Roberts added that restricting donations also raised free-speech questions.
"We have an obligation to do this, but we have to do it right," Roberts said, although he added that there were many other sources of money for candidates besides contractors.
The ranking Republican in the Legislature, Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union), said Corzine had not reached out to the GOP, which has long called for ethics reform.
Kean said new reforms should be added, including an aggregate limit on individual campaign donations and a ban stopping officials convicted of corruption from using their remaining campaign funds. That change would affect, among others, former Camden County Sen. Wayne Bryant, who was convicted on corruption charges last month and who still has roughly $600,000 in his campaign account.
"I'm frustrated that it took a reelection campaign for the governor to finally focus on ethics reform," Kean said. "My hope is that this is an initiative in which the governor truly looks to Republican and Democrats alike for advice and insight. He has not done so yet, but I'm always optimistic."