As a long-time advocate for much-needed ethics reform at all levels of government, I know that it’s sometimes hard to keep the faith when allegations and reports uncover a deep-seated culture of corruption in New Jersey.
Elected officials at all levels of government keep succumbing to a blend of greed and arrogance which tarnishes their office and betrays the public trust. And the constant parade of those who’ve made a mockery of elected office in the Garden State can be downright depressing to those seeking to change the status quo.
For too long in New Jersey, the standard perception of government has been of self-serving politicians violating their oaths of office for a quick buck. To the people we represent, public corruption has become expected. The average New Jerseyan is predisposed to believe that their elected leaders will fail them, and that greed and graft will overcome even the most honest of public servants.
Unfortunately, we have seen far too many examples of the worst of public life – the predators who seek to make the most for themselves, and not their fellow citizens. But we’re ratcheting up the pressure on those who’ve abused their offices, and we’re seeking serious penalties for corrupt offenders. And when we put one guilty politician behind bars, the voters tend to replace him or her with a fresh new face who embraces open, honest government.
When I entered the State Senate four years ago, efforts at government ethics reform were seen as futile. It was widely believed that politicians were never going to police themselves or their friends. The conventional wisdom was that too many people had a vested interest in the status quo for meaningful reform to take place, and the powerbrokers who controlled state government would crush any efforts at reform before they got off the ground.
Four years later, I am joined by allies on both sides of the political aisle who embrace the need for comprehensive, top-to-bottom ethics reform. We’ve been able to accomplish some initiatives that the media, the electorate – pretty much everyone – viewed as impossible a short time ago. I am proud to say that since I was elected in 2003, I have sponsored 16 pieces of ethics legislation that have been signed into law. Most recently, the Governor signed a bill establishing serious penalties for corrupt politicians and, on the same day, the Senate approved two measures designed to crack down on private interests wasting public grants and corrupt politicians who increase costs to taxpayers.
We took the first steps towards limiting the effects of pay-to-play, with stronger bans just over the horizon. In the fight to ban developer money from public elections, I am at the forefront, because I’ve seen first hand how developers buy favor in a municipality and wreak havoc on the quality of life there.
We put strong penalties for corruption in place, including mandatory jail time, loss of pension, and possible civil action from the taxpayers who’ve been defrauded.
We ensured greater transparency and accountability, making our campaign account information accessible to voters via the Internet, and requiring greater financial disclosure from lawmakers.
We’ve pushed for greater transparency in the budget-crafting process, requiring legislators to stand by any specific budget earmarks or reductions they may advocate. Additionally, we’ve completely banned the wining and dining of public policy makers and their staff by lobbyists.
We’ve made significant progress to crack down on runaway benefits and pension abuse by elected and appointed officials. A ban on dual office-holding, a landmark piece of legislation I sponsored, should be signed into law before we pass a budget this June.
I entered the legislature as a minority voice for change. It hasn’t always been easy, but through pressure, and perseverance we are changing the tide of an entrenched political culture that took the public for granted for far too long.
As the new generation of leaders begins to take its place in the Legislature, and veterans of good government stick around, we’re developing the perfect storm for the sort of sweeping reforms that are needed, in Trenton as much as in our hometowns.
I welcome your input, Blue Jersey. I’ll be around a little later to respond to your comments and answer your questions.
Senator Ellen Karcher represents the 12th Legislative District, which includes parts of Monmouth and Mercer Counties.