Profile: Fiscal Reforms And Top GOP Member of Assembly Budget Committee

Declan O’Scanlon helped retire NJ’s red-light cameras, puts social media to work to open dialogue with constituents, opponents

Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R-Monmouth)
Name: Declan O’Scanlon

Title: State Assemblyman

Why he matters: O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) is the top-ranking Republican on the Assembly Budget Committee, the panel in the lower house of the Legislature that is charged with holding hearings on the annual state budget. He’s also a leading voice in the GOP caucus on public-employee benefits reform, debt, and other fiscal issues, frequently taking to social media to make his case directly to constituents. And O’Scanlon has been among the loudest critics of the use of red-light cameras in New Jersey, a practice that was stopped late last year.

Elected office: O’Scanlon, a resident of Little Silver, was first elected to the Assembly in 2008. He was immediately assigned to serve on the Assembly Budget Committee and was named Republican Budget Officer in 2011. Being on the budget panel puts him right on “the front lines,” O’Scanlon said.

“That was where I wanted to be even before I was elected,” he said. “Virtually all of the state’s problems stem from budget issues.”

Prior to serving in the Assembly, O’Scanlon was a member of the Little Silver Council from 1994 to 2007. That experience still plays a role in how he approaches issues as a lawmaker, keeping his focus on the state’s high property tax bills.

“I know firsthand where to go and how to get it done,” O’Scanlon said.

Education and professional experience: Born in Marlboro, O’Scanlon has degrees from Monmouth University in finance and psychology. He currently serves as chief executive officer of FSD Enterprise, a wireless communications consulting firm that he said works with towns and wireless-phone companies to figure out where best to locate cell-phone towers.

Use of social media: Under the Twitter handle @declanoscanlon he’s become one of the Legislature’s most active communicators on social media. He’s engaged in debates with other lawmakers — including a lengthy back-and-forth on public-employee pension funding with Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) in April — and also regularly interacts with constituents.

“Anything that broadens access the public has to their elected officials is a good thing,” O’Scanlon said about his use of social media.

And though he’s been attacked by political opponents on Twitter, O’Scanlon said far more good has come from his interactions than bad experiences. It’s also a good way, he said, to directly confront “the misinformation out there.”

“At the very least you can start a dialogue,” he said. “It’s a really cool way to expand people’s access to you.”

Red-light camera activism: O’Scanlon was a loud opponent of red-light cameras, which were allowed to operate in many New Jersey towns until the end of the past year when a five-year pilot program expired. Though the red-light cameras were designed to encourage responsible driving, they also became known as a way for municipalities to fill their coffers with revenue during the last recession. And there were also problems with mistimed lights and delayed summonses.

[related]O’Scanlon said his activism on the issue grew out of a longstanding concern with “motorist issues,” and the basic position that New Jersey drivers should be respected.
“Our rules and laws of the road need to reflect reasonable people behaving reasonably,” he said.

Biggest issues facing New Jersey right now: His legislative priorities have ranged from working to reform New Jersey’s bail system to expanding access to medical marijuana. But O’Scanlon in recent months has been zeroing in on the cost of public-employee benefits.

The new state budget Gov. Chris Christie signed into law at the end of June includes $1.3 billion for the chronically underfunded pension system — a record payment for the state for one fiscal year. But none of the cost-saving recommendations that were released earlier this year by a nonpartisan commission of benefits experts convened by Christie have been adopted by lawmakers. They include freezing the current pension system in favor of a new retirement plan with features of a 401(k) and moving employees into less-generous healthcare plans.

O’Scanlon, citing the commission’s work, notes that without reform the annual cost of paying employee pension and health benefits will rise as high as $7 billion on a $34 billion budget. Though the Legislature is often accused of “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to pensions and health benefits, he said it’s more like “kicking a toxic-waste drum down the road.”

“It would be tragic to miss this moment of opportunity,” O’Scanlon said.

Political future: Like everyone else in the state Assembly, O’Scanlon is up for reelection in the fall. Still, he said he has no plans to start changing his approach just to win the next election even as Republicans this year are looking to wrest back control of the Assembly

“If I lose my office because I tell people the truth … I’m OK with that,” O’Scanlon said.

And even though his name has been floated at times as a possible contender for a seat in Congress or even for governor, O’Scanlon said he’s content with being an assemblyman.

“I like to tell people I’m unshackled by the burden of aspiration,” he said.

“I pinch myself every day for the honor to have been given the seat I have now,” he said. “I’m thrilled with it.”

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