New Jersey Republicans are seizing on an $8 million state payment, promised to Camden without their knowledge, to promote a bill under which all state spending would have to be included on a searchable Web site.
"If this bill were law, it would allow the Legislature to fulfill its duty to keep an eye on back-room spending schemes developed by bureaucrats in Trenton," said Assemblywoman Alison McHose (R., Sussex), referring to a payment the state plans to funnel to Camden through its port.
In most years, the South Jersey Port Corp. makes a payment in lieu of taxes to Camden for occupying about 300 acres on the city's waterfront.
According to Camden's proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year, the payment is increasing from $2 million to $8 million. South Jersey Port is a quasi-governmental agency, and its payments in lieu of taxes are paid by the state Department of Treasury.
Republicans see the payment as a secret bailout because the state controls the city's finances and one of Gov. Corzine's top treasury officials helped put together the city budget. The budget had a $24 million shortfall, and quadrupling the payment helped to close the gap.
Treasury spokesman Tom Vincz said this month that the $8 million was in line with the $300 million fair market value of the port. If taxable, the port would pay the city $8 million annually, according to the officials' estimation.
It is legal for the Treasury Department to make changes to its port appropriation without legislative approval, Vincz said.
After The Inquirer reported the increase earlier this month, Republicans said a law - the Transparency in Government Act - was needed to monitor, and possibly prevent, such spending.
The act would require all state spending - disbursements by agencies, contractual payments to vendors, salaries for employees - to be listed in a searchable database.
The bill has kicked around in Trenton for a year, but a version, introduced this month eliminated one potential hurdle: Start-up funding for the site would come from donations, not tax dollars.
The bill does not specify a mechanism for raising that money.
"A hundred years from now, they're going to laugh - 'What do you mean this wasn't put online?' " said State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R., Morris), a sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.
Pennacchio contended that "there's no transparency" in state spending. A Web site would allow two types of savings, he said.
"One, average citizens will say, 'I don't want to pay money on this,' " he said. "Then there's the other savings that you'll never see, because people will be absolutely scared out of their wits to do things that will be questioned."
A few states have such a system. A quick search at
» READ MORE: www.kansas.gov/kanview/index.html
shows that $64.80 was spent in June at the McDonald's restaurant in Fort Hays, Kan., by Fort Hays State University, for example.
It was listed under the category "official hospitality," but more specific information was not provided.
In New Jersey, good-government advocates endorse the proposal, saying it would help people monitor the government.
"By making this information more readily available, citizens will play a more active role in the budget process," said Heather Taylor of the nonprofit Citizens Campaign.