A Modest Proposal

The Slippery Slope

Most things in life are not black and white, but rather somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes. This is exemplified by ethics in politics – a phrase that many would consider oxymoronic.

Our system of campaign financing and political influence inherently presents ethical challenges even to the most morally straight candidate or official. It’s a slippery slope for an official from accepting an award to ending up in jail.

Most politicians try to act ethically. They don’t accept gifts or favors at all. But for far too many, the lure of travel, meals, and football box seats is too tempting to refuse. While most stay precariously at the top of that slippery slope, our governor has slid down it into the bowels of self-enrichment. But how do other elected officials handle this?

Double Dipping

New Jersey is known for “double-dipping” – elected officials collecting salaries and pensions from multiple government jobs. Some of it is legal. Some not. But is it ethical?

According to NJ Spotlight, Democratic Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo simultaneously collects a pension of $68,861 and a salary of $153,831 for the same job. But this double-dipping is bipartisan. The same article points out that Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff collects a $140,000 salary from the state while receiving a pension of $88,860.

There’s another aspect to this double-dipping – another gray area and a special case.

Because we have a part-time state legislature, our Assemblymen and Senators normally work at another job. Some in government, some in the private sector. Yet they vote on legislation that influences and impacts both sectors.

A recent dust-up occurred when Assemblyman John Burzichelli took on a $100,000 job at the Gloucester County Improvement Authority, an entity that he clearly has influence over as an assemblyman. It’s perfectly legal.

I have a lot of admiration for Burzichelli. He’s not your typical bombastic orator in the State House. He’s level-headed, smart, and not afraid to sponsor much-needed bills that may not be popular, such as the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act.

The South Jersey legislator is just one of many who operate legally but on the edge of ethics. There are attorneys, dentists, physicians, small businessmen, and educators who are also part-time legislators whose actions in Trenton can have a positive impact on their main occupational jobs.

A Modest Proposal

There’s an understandable reluctance on the part of both parties to tighten up their own ethics rules and eliminate double-dipping. But there is one small change they can make to provide some transparency to help their constituents make informed decisions.

Currently, votes in the legislature are tallied as Yes, No, Not Voting, and Abstain. These votes are publicly available on the legislative website.

If a legislator abstains, we have no a priori indication why. Did he abstain because he simply did not have enough information to cast an informed vote? Did she abstain because she felt there was a conflict of interest with her day job? Did he abstain because he was too chicken to take a stand on a controversial issue?

The legislature can provide a small degree of additional information by adding another category of voting – Recusal. Recusal would be self-determined by the legislator, but would give constituents a better understanding of a neutral, non-countable vote. It would help the legislator by affording a legitimate reason for opting out on a particular vote. And if there’s ever a case where a legislator does not recuse on a bill for which he or she benefits directly and substantially, it helps voters understand where that person resides on the ethical spectrum.

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