Ethics Reform
General Business

Murphy Outlines Trenton Ethics Reform Plan

Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday outlined nine proposals to bring about “a comprehensive approach to ethics reform in Trenton.” Running down his list of items at a speaking engagement at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus, the governor said some of the proposals can be achieved through executive order, but most will require legislation. He added that the endeavor is the first full-scale push for new ethics rule in the state capital in 10 years.

Murphy began outlining ways to reform the practices of lobbyists and others “who make their livings by trying to influence legislation and laws.” He said he will require in the coming weeks, through executive order, new transparency measures for those who do business with the state. Through legislation, he said he is seeking to lower the threshold of work that defines lobbying from its current 20-hour-a year level to a one-hour-a year level.

He then added, “Let’s end the ‘shadow lobbying’ industry by requiring that everyone hired to influence government decisions be disclosed.” He gave as examples public relations professionals, lawyers, research analysts and consultants and advisors.

Murphy proposed eliminating the broad exemptions of the Legislature from the Open Public Records Act. Under the current public records law, legislative communications that either involve constituents or which involve legislators in the course of their official duties, are exempt from disclosure. “Over the years, these exemptions have been interpreted to mean that the legislature is entirely exempt from OPRA,” Murphy said, explaining that when a lobbyists sends a draft bill to a staff member in his office, that draft bill is a public record that must be disclosed. However, if the lobbyist sends the same bill to a legislative staff member, it is exempt from disclosure.

“That’s what you call an unlevel playing field. And, it’s a reason why so many residents are skeptical about government,” Murphy said.

The next group of reforms would make sure that no one enters government service to get “a big payday for themselves,” Murphy said. He proposed bringing the Legislature’s rules on accepting gifts in line with the more stringent standards in the executive branch, where employees are subject to a zero-tolerance policy and cannot accept any gifts that are related in any way to their public duties.

He also proposed applying similar rules for outside employment for all members of senior staff across the executive and legislative branches. Currently, no one in the governor’s senior staff can accept an outside job without first getting that job cleared by the State Ethics Commission. “Let’s expand this policy and ensure that the same process is followed by both branches: staff members in either branch of government, above a certain income threshold, must be required to receive ethics clearance from either the State Ethics Commission or the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards before collecting an outside paycheck,” Murphy said.

Financial disclosure forms, which Murphy said are more robust for executive branch employees, must also be standardized for both the executive and legislative branch. Taking this one step further, the governor is seeking a new disclosure form – completed each year – for anyone working in either branch of government earning in excess of $100,000.

Another proposal seeks to double the length of time that a former public official – whether it be a former governor, cabinet official, or legislator – must wait before he or she can register as a lobbyist from one year to two years. “We propose applying this ‘cooling off’ period to any executive branch and legislative branch staff that has to complete the financial disclosure form I just discussed,” Murphy said.

Finally, Murphy is seeking greater transparency in how bills and resolutions are dealt with in Trenton. “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,” Murphy said. “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?”

He proposed a model that the House of Representatives adopted last January, in which no bills or resolutions should be voted on until their final version has been made publicly available, on an official website, for at least 72 hours. The only way the Senate or Assembly can get around this rule would be by an emergency 75% – super-majority vote – the same threshold that currently exists for waiving certain procedural requirements.

Additionally, the disclosure of all interests group who go before the Legislature’s committees to publicly support or oppose legislations should be disclosed. Murphy proposed making this information know immediately, where residents can find it within seconds, rather than, for example, having citizens take time off from work to attend a hearing or take time from their day to listen to archived proceedings.

In closing, Murphy said, “The legislators who will sponsor these bills – Democrats and Republicans – prove that the desire to improve our government, to make it more responsive and relatable, is not a partisan endeavor. Neither party holds a monopoly on ideas, nor on the desire to make things better.”

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