Gov. Phil Murphy proposed sweeping ethic reforms in Trenton, bolstered by bipartisan support in both the Assembly and Senate.
The legislation package would strengthen restrictions on lobbying, enhance financial disclosure requirements, and increase transparency in the legislative process. Sponsoring the bill in the senate will be Democratic Sen. Richard Codey and Republican Sen. Chris Brown, while GOP Assemblyman Ryan Peters will take the lead in the state’s lower house.
Murphy, in his remarks at the Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy on Feb. 19, said even at a time when public cynicism about government is all too common, the way to restore confidence is to make it more transparent and accountable.
Best for New Jersey
“When I ran for Governor, I pledged that if elected, I would make every decision based on what is best for the people of New Jersey, not Trenton insiders,” said Murphy. “For the first time in a decade, we are proposing comprehensive ethics reforms to ensure that elected officials are serving the public interest, not the special interests.”
The five bills contained in the package will address:
- Lobbying Reform. The legislation will require lobbying firms and companies hiring lobbyists to disclose when they hire a person or firm to provide professional services other than lobbying as well as reducing the threshold for individuals to register as governmental affairs agents from 20 hours of lobbying activities per calendar year to one hour per calendar year.
- Eliminating Legislative Exemption to Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The bill will remove the very broad legislative exemption to OPRA that exempts all communications for the use of a legislative member in the course of their official duties, ensuring the executive and legislative branches operate under the same rules.
- Aligning Gift and Outside Income Rules. This proposed law would subject legislators and their staff to the same standard of the executive branch, who are prohibited from accepting any gift related in any way to the employee’s public duties. Additionally, high-level legislative staff would be prevented from receiving outside income unless approved by the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards. Finally, legislators and all executive and legislative branch employees earning $100,000 or more per year would be required to fill out detailed financial disclosure forms.
- Extending the Cooling Off Period. New Jersey’s “cooling off” period would double to two years and be applied to all executive and legislative branch staff earning $100,000 or more per year. The two-year period ensures a former official will not be lobbying during the same legislative session when they were in office.
- Legislative Transparency. The legislative proposal will require bills or resolutions not to be voted on unless their final form has been made publicly available on the Legislature’s website for 72 full hours preceding the vote; however, either House would be able to waive this requirement by an emergency 3/4 vote. This legislative proposal will require the disclosure of all organizations or individuals who submit testimony supporting or opposing bills or resolutions.
Sen. Codey noted the ethics standard, not updated in 15 years, was considered at one time the model to be based on. As recently as 2012, the Center for Public Integrity gave New Jersey a B+ grade on ethics, the top grade in the nation. But by 2015, the state dropped to a D grade, ranking only 19th in the nation.
“They were considered the best in the country then, and we want to stay to that standard,” said Codey. “I believe Gov. Murphy’s package does just that.”
For the the two sponsors from the Republican party, they echoed the call to pass the laws to help restore confidence voter confidence.
“For too long, our ethics laws have fallen short of the standards we should expect of our elected officials,” said Sen. Brown. “Gov. Murphy’s new comprehensive ethics reforms will help build confidence in our political process and ensure that state government works for New Jersey families, not powerful special interests.”
“As an elected official, I understand the need for transparency and accountability in state government, and ethics reforms are integral to this mission,” said Assemblyman Peters. “Gov. Murphy’s new proposals will strengthen our requirements for lobbying and close loopholes that have existed for far too long.”