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Assembly begins pushing legislative ethics reforms

•  Ethics     updated  2008/03/06 10:53


Lawmakers would be barred from accepting more than one taxpayer-paid health insurance plan and from taking campaign donations from their aides under measures pushed forward Thursday by Assembly legislators.

The measures released by the Assembly State Government Committee come as legislators also prepare to revamp an oft-criticized legislative ethics committee.

Legislative staff said it can't be estimated how much money the bill to limit health insurance benefits would save because it is not known how many officials receive benefits under more than one plan.

Still, sponsors said it would be a sensible move, especially with the state suffering chronic fiscal problems.

"Taking action to address this problem will be just one step in a long process of getting government costs under control in New Jersey, but it is a significant step," said the sponsor, Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, R-Monmouth, who vowed to introduce legislation to bar all state workers from accepting more than one taxpayer-paid health insurance plan.

Legislators have tried to pass versions of the bill into law since 2003 without success. It passed the Assembly during the last session, but never received Senate consideration.

The measure to bar legislative aides and their immediate family members from making political contributions to the legislator that employs them would continue for two years after an aide stopped working for the legislator.

Violators would face up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

"While some of these contributions may be well-intentioned, they allow for a form of kickback whereby a legislator pays the salary of the aide with taxpayer funds, and the aide then kicks back those dollars to his or her boss by way of campaign contributions," said Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, a bill sponsor.

He noted that congressional staffers cannot contribute to their employers.

"This bill strikes a blow against what I call the culture of soft corruption in Trenton," Webber said.

Assembly and Senate committees are scheduled on Monday to weigh a plan pushed by Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. to revamp the much-criticized legislative ethics committee, which has chastised few legislators and been rife with partisan bickering.

Roberts wants to remove lawmakers from it and replace them with retired prosecutors, Supreme Court justices and Superior Court judges and give the panel more authority.


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