by Nikita Biryukov, New Jersey Monitor
Members of a state trust that received just $720,000 in this year’s budget face more stringent financial scrutiny than the lawmakers who approved the $50.6 billion budget, a disclosure gap that critics say hurts already faltering trust in state government.
The stricter financial disclosure rules aren’t unique to the New Jersey Cultural Trust. Members of more than 50 state boards, commissions, and committees — as well as high-ranking administration officials — must annually report their finances with greater levels of transparency than state lawmakers.
Recent efforts to require that lawmakers disclose more about their finances have not gone anywhere. Experts in government and ethics say broader requirements would not only help the public know more about the sources of their state representatives’ income, but would also boost public confidence in government.
A Gallup poll conducted late last year found 57% of U.S. adults trusted their state government to handle state issues. The figure hasn’t been that low since 2011.
“People are suspicious of politicians, and I think the broader disclosure they make, the more chance they have of gaining the public trust, which is certainly part of the job,” said Andrew Berns, who chaired the State Ethics Commission under Gov. Chris Christie.
Legislators earn $49,000 for their part-time Statehouse positions, and most lawmakers have other jobs. The income brackets on the financial disclosure forms they must fill out annually top out at $50,000. If they make more than that, they don’t have to disclose it.
The disclosure forms submitted annually by public employees and officers, by contrast, contain seven value brackets stretching from $1,000 to $500,000, compared to just four brackets for lawmakers. They also cover a greater number of asset types than their legislative counterparts.
Take the disclosure filed by New Jersey Turnpike Authority Comptroller Mukta Puranik. It shows his personal income was between $100,000 and $249,999 in 2021. Sen. Michael Doherty’s legislative disclosure shows only that the Warren County Republican earned more than $50,000 from his legal practice.
Paula Franzese is a former State Ethics Commission chair who served as special ethics counsel to state Sen. Richard Codey when Codey was acting governor.
“When one is elected to government office, the very appearance of impropriety must be avoided,” Franzese said. “The public deserves to know that their elected officials are acting in furtherance of the public good without ulterior motive. “
The executive branch disclosures also require individuals report public contracts in which they or members of their household have an interest. But if a lawmaker has a stake in such a contract — even if it’s worth millions of dollars — the details are captured in reporting made under the state’s pay-to-play laws only if the firms or people involved make campaign contributions.
Those contracts are still reported by the government that issued them, but they may appear only in a county or municipal board’s meeting minutes and agendas. There are 564 municipalities in New Jersey.
“We need to understand what public entities our state legislators are doing business with because that’s how we understand if there’s a conflict of interest,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “We can’t tell from the current requirements who they are doing business with or who their family members are doing business with, and that’s a serious deficiency.”
Candidates for state office must also file candidate financial disclosures in election years, but those filings contain even less information than those for office holders, requiring only that they report household income sources worth more than $1,000, gifts worth more than $250, and honoraria, fees, and reimbursements worth more than $100. They are not required to disclose amounts for any of the categories.
Sitting lawmakers are also required to file forms whenever they or their spouse enter or leave public employment, but those reports do not include dollar amounts, nor do they capture public contracts to which a lawmaker or their employer is a party.
Old pushes met little success
When he was the state Senate president, Steve Sweeney pitched modest reforms to legislative financial disclosures in early 2020 that would have increased the levels of value brackets on the forms, but that push petered out before it could really begin when the state reported its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020.
“It just fell off, I think, the legislative agenda because there were so many other things that folks were focused on, frankly, more important things as it relates to life and death of our fellow citizens,” said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), who was one of just two legislators to voluntarily release tax returns to the press in 2019.
Around the same time, Gov. Phil Murphy introduced an ethics reform package that, among other things, would have required legislators to use the more stringent executive disclosure forms. None of the bills in that package ever made it to a committee hearing.
Singleton said he would not oppose a push to make legislative disclosures more robust, though he said there had been no real dialogue about enacting stricter reporting rules among Senate Democrats.
At least one lawmaker wants to make sure the public has full access to legislators’ finances.
“My feeling is real simple: You should disclose your tax returns, period. End of story,” said Sen. Jon Bramnick. “People should know what kind of money you’re making, where you’re making it from, because that can have a serious influence on how you vote, how you would act in a circumstance. What’s wrong with tax returns? You’re a public figure, right?”
Bramnick (R-Union) has introduced a bill that would require candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and either chamber of the Legislature to disclose their federal tax returns every session since 2017. The bill has never been heard by a legislative committee.