Legislature Squarely in Sights of Murphy’s Ethics Reform Package

Colleen O'Dea | February 21, 2020 | Politics
Governor addresses lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement, legislative accountability and public access to information
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy described his proposals as “common sense.”

The “ethics” reform package Gov. Phil Murphy proposed this week seeks to target both long-standing issues that have been raised in New Jersey and some relatively recent phenomena that go beyond what many term as ethics and into the realm of good government practices.

With most of the proposals aimed at the Legislature — including a ban on accepting gifts and a more expansive financial disclosure report required each year — their chances of passage by the lawmakers who would have to live by the new rules are uncertain.

That does not make the reforms any less necessary: In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave New Jersey a D in its good government report card for the states, the last time the organization conducted such an investigation. Murphy’s proposals would address at least parts of the relatively poor grades the state received in the areas of lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement, legislative accountability and public access to information, though would not by any means fix all the issues found in the review.

“Common sense,” is how the governor described his proposals in an address at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University on Wednesday night.

“The time has come to take another whack at the long-standing so-called traditions of Trenton … to change the culture,” said Murphy, calling his proposal a “comprehensive plan to modernize the ethics laws of our state, so that the people of New Jersey can regain faith about the way business is conducted in the State House, and so they can have unprecedented access to our political process.”

The five-bill package, which is to be sponsored by Sens. Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) and Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-Burlington), would address a number of issues. Three are directed solely at the legislative branch of government.

Five-bill package

One bill would eliminate the broad exclusion from the state’s Open Public Records Act that the Legislature enjoys for all communications and memos related to lawmakers’ official duties. Some legislative officials have cited this exemption liberally to deny the press and the public access to certain documents. A similar exemption does not exist for the executive branch. OPRA would continue to have two dozen other reasons that all officials, including lawmakers, could use for not providing the public with requested documents.

Another would prohibit legislators and their staff from accepting gifts related to their public duties, as executive-branch staffers are banned from doing. Currently, lawmakers can accept gifts — such as meals, event tickets and hotel rooms — as long as they believe they are not meant to influence their legislative actions. It would ban high-level legislative staff from getting any outside income without prior approval by the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards. It also would require them to fill out the same, more detailed financial disclosure form that many high-level executive branch employees and members of state agencies and commissions must complete. The State Ethics Commission forms are 11 pages long,  ask more questions and are all in an easy-to-read form. The legislative forms span four pages, cover fewer income ranges and often are still handwritten.

A third bill would prevent lawmakers from voting on bills and resolutions unless their final form has been made publicly available on the Office of Legislative Services’ website for 72 hours and require the disclosure of all those who submitted testimony in support or against legislation. In numerous instances, such as the budget bill in 2018 and the first committee hearing on recreational marijuana, bills have been voted on without the public being able to see the bill or legislators having had time to read it. Either legislative house could waive the 72-hour rule by a three-fourth’s majority vote. Murphy said the rule is similar to one U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put in place in January 2019.

Another change would apply to both lawmakers and high-level executive branch staff. It would double from one year to two the time these officials would have to wait to register as lobbyists after leaving office. Several other states, including New York, Colorado and Alabama, have two-year prohibitions. Lengthening that so-called “cooling off” period helps ensure that a former official does not lobby during the same legislative session in which he was in office.

The final measure would improve lobbying disclosure by requiring reporting on all those hired by lobbyists. In addition, those who companies hire to work with lobbyists, such as pollsters, public relations professionals and digital consultants, would be required to register as lobbyists. Currently, they do not have to register as such because they do not interact with public officials, which is known as “shadow lobbying.” It would also lower the time threshold to require registration as a governmental affairs agent from 20 hours per year to one hour. In 2018, lobbyists spent about $90 million to try to influence legislation and regulations in New Jersey but did not have to report “shadow lobbying” expenditures. That could help explain why total lobbying expenses sank to their lowest level in four years.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, has been calling for legislation to capture these currently unreported expenditures, and was encouraged by the governor’s support of a bill doing just that.

‘More sophisticated lobbying’

“We know that lobbyists in New Jersey are becoming much more sophisticated in terms of their approach to lobbying, hiring public relations people, hiring pollsters and researchers and so on to assist the lobbying,” he said, noting this has been happening for many years at the national level. “The traditional ‘buttonhole the person’ still goes on, but things have gotten much more sophisticated with lobbying, and I think this is part of it and it should be disclosed.”

Because no reporting is currently required, Brindle said he can’t quantify the extent of shadow lobbying in the state, but that larger firms, in particular, have been hiring non-registered professionals “to assist them with the job.”

Both Brindle and Murphy noted that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) sponsored a similar bill (S-4305) in the last legislative session. Sweeney has not yet refiled that bill in the current session but plans to do so, a spokesman said. In his remarks at Rutgers, Murphy thanked Sweeney “for his attention to this issue” and said he looked “forward to working with him to get this reform done.”

Asked why Murphy was promoting a new bill instead of Sweeney’s bill, a spokeswoman pointed out that the governor had acknowledged Sweeney’s bill but that it had not passed. Sweeney introduced the bill Dec. 5, 2019, and it cleared a Senate committee 11 days later but did not advance further. The last legislative session ended Jan. 14.

Relations between Murphy and Sweeney — the two most powerful elected Democrats in the state — continue to be strained, at the very least.

Spokespeople for Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) both said the legislative leaders are reviewing Murphy’s proposals.

‘Challenging the status quo’

Murphy’s plan was not unexpected: The governor had said during last month’s State of the State address that he would be calling for ethics reforms. During his speech Wednesday at Rutgers, he said that one of the pledges he made while campaigning was “changing the culture in Trenton, to make it more open and accessible, responsive, and, ultimately, more representative of our state and our great people.”

He acknowledged that getting lawmakers to pass his proposals could be difficult “because they may challenge, or even threaten, a status quo in which they are very comfortable.”

But rather than try to cajole legislators into going along with his proposals, Murphy didn’t pull any punches. He called lawmakers’ special OPRA exemption “an unlevel playing field,” adding, “it’s a reason why so many residents are skeptical about government.” He said it “should just be common sense” that legislators, like executive-branch employees, should not be able to accept gifts related to their public work.

Murphy reserved possibly the strongest language for reforming the legislative process itself.

“I think we’ve all read stories of late-night legislative sessions, with amendments agreed-to and voted upon before they’ve actually been committed to paper and put forward for the public to see,” he said. “Chaos, and decisions made behind closed doors, may have always been associated with Trenton, but they are not how our democratically elected institutions should function in the 21st century. How can the public make their voices heard when bills can be voted on before their text is even available for the public to see?”

Representatives of a number of grassroots citizens groups, many of which grew up following the 2016 presidential election, agreed with Murphy.

“Each of the reforms in this package should be law,” said Mara Novak of NJ 11th for Change. “We are especially encouraged by the proposed expansion of OPRA and the 72-hour bill posting rule and look forward to working with the Governor and legislators to pass these critical ethics reforms into law.”

“This reform package is a great step towards ensuring that all government officials are playing by the same rules and held to the same ethical standards,” said Meredith Meisenheimer of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change. “Grassroots activists have been fighting for many of these steps for years, and it is encouraging that these calls for increased transparency and better governance are being heard. New Jerseyans deserve a government that works for the people, rather than only for powerful special interests.”

Novak said Murphy’s proposal is just a start and called for additional reforms, adding, “We hope these important first steps in creating a fairer New Jersey for all our citizens will extend to reforming the party line to create a level playing field for all candidates running for office as well.”