Time for action on pay-to-play in N.J. municipalities

A s the beginning of 2012 nears — the time when state legislative action will begin in earnest — Gov. Chris Christie and the legislative leadership need to make completing the unfinished agenda of pay-to-play reform a high priority.

New Jersey has one of the strongest state-level pay-to-play reform laws in the nation. It has succeeded in greatly limiting the link between campaign contributions and receiving state contracts, restoring merit, integrity and cost-effectiveness to a broken state contracting system.

Unfortunately, at the local level the old pay-to-play game is alive and well. The continued trading of campaign contributions for lucrative county, municipal and school board contracts prevents real competition and results in lower quality services for higher cost.

In these economically difficult times, with family budgets already squeezed and local governments cutting back essential services, continuing pay-to-play is a luxury we can no longer afford. It is long past time to put taxpayers first.

A recent report from state Comptroller Matt Boxer highlights the weakness of the existing state law governing local professional service contract selection. The law allows any municipality to opt out of pay-to-play contribution limits if they institute a so-called “fair and open” process — a paper thin and easily manipulated set of general rules that result in contract selection procedures that are neither “fair” nor “open” and designed so that local politicians can pick the politically favored contractor. As Mr. Boxer said, “Qualifying for the fair and open exception returns the local government entity to the essentially unregulated system of contracting that existed before the pay-to-play law.”

It is important to note there are 90 towns in New Jersey that have rejected this costly approach and adopted their own taxpayerfriendly strong local pay-to-play reform laws, which limit political contributions by people doing business or seeking to do business with local government.

(People interested in advancing strong pay-to-play reform in their town are encouraged to contact the Citizens Campaign for hands-on assistance and a strong model law. )

And the Christie administration is to be commended for making the adoption of a strong local pay-to-play reform law a condition of receiving certain kinds of discretionary funding.

These kinds of incremental actions do much good. It is long past time, however, to expand our strong state-level pay-to-play reform law to all levels of government, so that all local property taxpayers can benefit from reduced costs in local government contracting.

Heather Taylor

Communications Director

The Citizens Campaign