New Jersey must do better at being worse


By: Dawn Cariello
Gov. James E. McGreevey is the Goldilocks of ethics reform — who, in the search for legislation that’s "just right," rejects proposals that take intermediate steps to purify New Jersey’s polluted political system. Critics cite the following as proof that his promise to clean up the ethical environment is nothing but hot air:
   In a December interview, the governor asserted he was "confident that ethical reform will come in 2004." During his State of the State address on Jan. 13, he used more virile verbiage: "Over and over again, I have made my position clear: Ethics reform is a priority." Then, appearing on a radio call-in show only 10 days later, he said that while ethics reform is critical, other matters on the state’s plate are of equal importance. Gov. McGreevey now holds out little hope that the Legislature will act on the matter this year, and furthermore, he will not use his considerable power and influence to force the issue.
   There is a sound rationale for this sudden retreat from reform. A few days before the governor made his remarks on the airwaves, a study was published that could have a chilling effect on the Garden State’s political pre-eminence. The report, "Public Corruption in the United States," ranked New Jersey as the 16th most corrupt state in the union.
   Naturally, the governor was outraged and embarrassed by this rating on the graft graph. We didn’t even crack the top 10! Our reputation as having the country’s most ethically challenged politicians and public servants is in peril. Significant time, effort and money went into achieving this prominent position. In a testament to the value of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats were able to put aside ideological differences and work together to build and sustain this image.
   Was it all for naught? What has become of the place that was such a hotbed of unethical behavior that it was deemed "the nation’s most corrupt state" by The American Almanac of Politics? Where is the chicanery of such epidemic proportions that U.S. Attorney Chris Christie lamented, "The problem is far worse than I thought, worse than anywhere else in the nation"? How does New Jersey maintain its edge when even Connecticut is threatening our status as the poster child of political scandal?
   Gov. McGreevey is fighting back. He knows that sanitizing the system would make corruption more difficult and thus further weaken our national standing. In order to prevent erosion of this hard-fought image, he has made the courageous decision to turn his back on ethics reform, knowing that sometimes you have to pillage the village in order to save it.
   Sure, being ranked 16th for corruption is disappointing, but it is also a wake-up call that our governor has answered by ensuring that this study will not threaten our well-deserved claim to fame. And even if we have lost some ground, let’s not forget that New Jersey has another area of national renown. We’re still No. 1 in property taxes — and they can’t take that away from us.