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Editorial: Campaign Finance

Coming clean in N.J. . . .


New Jersey, believe it or not, could stake out the national high ground on campaign-finance reform. There remains one perennially formidable barrier - the Legislature.

After years of painfully incremental progress, the state experienced an outbreak of rectitude this fall. Gov. Corzine proclaimed his readiness to close all remaining loopholes in the state's ban on "pay-to-play," the corrosive trading of government contracts for campaign contributions. And the governor proved he was serious by doing everything in his power to make it so.

Corzine signed three executive orders and called for legislation to finish the job. Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts (D., Camden) stood beside the governor and gave every indication of being fully on board. Roberts later predicted legislative action before the year was out.

But the signals were murkier from the upper house - which, incidentally, hosted some of the worst shenanigans of recent years, including those of freshly convicted Camden County alumnus Wayne Bryant, found guilty of using his budget committee chairmanship for personal gain. State Senate President Dick Codey (D., Essex) skipped Corzine's news conference, and his subsequent statements were supportive but palpably squishy.

One of the state's foremost reform advocates, Harry Pozycki, says Corzine's ethics package is the real deal. He told the Inquirer's Editorial Board that the governor's executive orders "tightened down every single loophole," adding, "We now have the strongest pay-to-play law in the country." Pozycki said he hopes to see complementary legislation shortly.

The executive orders ensure that state government contractors cannot skirt pay-to-play limits through the powerful fund-raising committees run by legislative leaders or through local political parties, which weren't included in the original law. The orders also apply the limits to all partners of the firms affected, closing another gaping loophole.

Legislation would protect those provisions from being undone by another governor. More important, legislation is needed to apply them to contracts at the school district, local and county levels, where much of the wasteful trading for campaign contributions takes place.

Also crucial is legislation to limit "wheeling," the virtually

unlimited movement

of money among

political party organizations. The practice strengthens regional party leaders by allowing them to wield influence across the state, exacerbating New Jersey's already ingrained bossism.

Is Corzine's ethics package an attempt to inoculate himself against a challenge from corruption-buster Chris Christie, the newly retired U.S. attorney? Or is the governor simply getting around to reforms he promised three years ago?

Who cares? The last governor to put even a comparable dent in pay-to-play, Jim McGreevey, did so only after announcing his unprecedented resignation. In other words, this is a rare opportunity. It will be up to the Legislature - especially Codey and Roberts - to seize or squander it.