Make price, quality criteria for contracts

It’s been described as “legalized political bribery,” and that’s exactly what it is. But unfortunately, the practice known as pay-to-play remains alive and well in the state of New Jersey, despite years of pleading from activists, politicians and ordinary citizens that the system be reformed.

Several dozen towns in New Jersey and some counties have enacted strict regulations to prohibit the awarding of contracts to those firms that make lofty campaign contributions to candidates in an election. And in some cases, these laws have made a difference, perhaps leveling the playing field for opposing candidates and creating a more honest approach to the handling of government service contracts.

But while the state last week took action to enable these laws to stand, this is a problematic and loophole-riddled way of approaching pay-to-play. One need only look at Middlesex County’s policy of prohibiting firms that do business with the county from making campaign contributions to candidates for office. When two Republican candidates for freeholder filed a complaint about substantial contributions made to the Democratic freeholders’ campaign, the Democrat-controlled county Ethics Board ruled that this was OK, since the money went to the “committee” to elect those freeholders, and not the candidates themselves.

So much for that pay-to-play policy.

Earlier this year, the state’s own pay-to-play law went into effect, but it is hardly air-tight. The measure, which prohibits the awarding of state contracts worth $17,500 or more to anyone who had made a contribution to a candidate for state office, doesn’t stop the transfer of campaign money between political committees, known as “wheeling,” and it leaves it to politicians in every town and county to decide whether they still want those campaign contributions from engineers, attorneys, etc. And most do still want that money if it’s going to help keep them in office.

We believe, and we hope Gov.-elect Jon Corzine agrees, that a new state law is needed that will stop professional firms who seek no-bid contracts from donating any money at all to a political candidate or committee, at any level of government. Let these firms spend their money on something else, anything else, that could actually help the residents of New Jersey. And let government agencies award contracts based solely on the cost of services and the qualifications of the people performing them.