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New Jersey leads nation in political double-dipping
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New Jersey leads nation in political double-dipping
Monday, August 21, 2006

Among our unfortunate distinctions in New Jersey is that we lead the nation in political double-dipping.

No other state allows people to hold multiple taxpayer-funded jobs to the extent New Jersey does. Many states' constitutions or laws ban it. In Indiana, a person can go to prison for it. The federal government also forbids the practice.

But not New Jersey, where self-indulgence by politicians is a tradition. In 1962, in fact, the Legislature, worried that the courts would restrict double-dipping, enacted a law explicitly allowing it.

"One to a Customer: The Democratic Downsides of Dual Officeholding" is a new report co-sponsored by New Jersey Policy Perspective and written by public-policy expert Tom O'Neill of Pennington. It notes that 20 of New Jersey's 120 legislators (none are from Mercer County) hold local elective offices in addition to their $49,000-a-year part-time lawmakers' gigs. Another 19 legislators have appointive government jobs. The total doesn't include Sen. Sharpe James (D-Essex), who recently retired as the $184,410-a-year mayor of Newark, the state's largest city. Dual officeholding also is common at the county and municipal levels.

It's a bad deal for the public, for reasons that are spelled out in O'Neill's report.

Conflict of interest is built into the system. Mayors who double as legislators argue that by holding state office they can get the most in funds and favors for their towns, but often that comes at a cost to the other towns in their legislative districts, or the state as a whole, whose interests the lawmakers also are sworn to protect. In the case of James, he has used his leverage as a senator to bargain for special favors for Newark. According to O'Neill, James also invoked senatorial courtesy to block the appointment of an Essex County prosecutor he didn't want -- a prosecutor who would have been responsible for any possible legal investigations involving the mayor's administration.

Double-dippers are unlikely to be able to give sufficient time and attention to one or both of their public jobs. Assemblyman Charles Epps Jr. (D-Hudson), spends at least two days of most weeks at the State House, which is time when he's not back home superintending Jersey City's troubled school district, for which he receives $210,520 a year. In 2003, Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer (R-Ocean) triple-dipped as a legislator, mayor and Ocean County employee.

It's hard enough for a challenger to unseat an incumbent in an election, but when the incumbent holds two elective jobs, he doubles the campaign advantage he enjoys in such areas as publicity, fundraising and staff assistance.

Multiple positions lead to padded public-funded pensions. For example, former Senate President John Bennett (R-Monmouth) qualified for an annual pension of $91,176, based on his 24 years in the Legislature and his salaries as attorney for several municipalities and school boards in his district.

There are some refreshing exceptions to the prevailing attitude. One freshman Assembly member, Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth), stepped down after 15 years as a county freeholder when she was elected to the Legislature last year, and another, Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), resigned her seat on the Red Bank Borough Council. "You can't fully commit yourself to two elected positions," Beck told a reporter. "It's impossible to manage local priorities and larger responsibilities of a legislative district. In the end, somebody gets short-changed."

Not surprisingly, though, there's little enthusiasm in the Legislature for a ban on double-dipping. The fervor is limited to a familiar group of reform advocates, such as Assemblymen Bill Baroni (R-Mercer), and Michael Panter (D-Monmouth), who have sponsored bills to require legislators to shed their extra government jobs as soon as possible. Two years ago, when the Democratic-controlled Assembly made a start on restricting pay-to-play, it approved a bill calling for a study of multiple officeholding, a move that often is done at the State House to forestall action. But even a study was too much for the Senate Democrats, who buried the measure in committee.

Former Gov. Richard Codey, who still is president of the Senate, said the chances for passage of any kind of restriction on dual officeholding are "50-50." It will happen only if present beneficiaries are grandfathered, he said. That way, at best, it would take years to eliminate the practice.

"I've never subscribed to it," Codey said. "I think you're better off just concentrating on one job. But others say, 'If the voters choose that way, who are you to tell them they can't?' I've got running mates who are dual officeholders" -- Democrats Mims Hackett and John McKeon, the mayors of Orange and West Orange, respectively -- "and they do a great job as state Assembly people and as mayors. People would say, 'When they ran, it was well known that they would be dual officeholders. They won. People said it didn't bother them.'"

The "let the voters decide" argument is simplistic, however. Tom O'Neill points out that most dual officeholders come from safe, one-party districts, where incumbents lose mostly in primaries. As the number of such districts increases, "the elective offices are more insulated from active public accountability," O'Neill wrote. In a swing district, there's a better chance of getting a true test of public sentiment. A memorable instance in which dual officeholding became a campaign issue was in 1985, when the voters of the 14th District nearly denied popular Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty's bid for an Assembly seat because many of them disagreed with his announced plan to hold both jobs.

The only changes related to dual officeholding that appear to have a real chance of enactment are a requirement that double-dippers choose one job for calculating pensions and benefits and an end to pension eligibility by professional-service providers. These are part of the agenda of the Legislature's special session on tax reform. They also are the only aspect of double-dipping that seems to trouble Gov. Jon Corzine.

"That's something we clearly have to do. I think there will be reforms in that area," Codey said.


Contact George Amick at gamick@njtimes.com.

Posted on: 2006/8/21 15:14
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Double Dipping and Pensions - Get Out your Checkbook!
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From today's Jersey Journal:

Don't look too far to find savings
Friday, August 18, 2006

State lawmakers want to find a way to cut the budget and bring property tax relief, with suggestions ranging from cuts in the state health benefits plan to regionalizing services to consolidating the tiniest towns and school districts.

But if they're looking to pinch pennies, maybe they can start with their own pockets. Or more precisely, their pensions.

A huge chunk of our state dollars go to paying pensions for retired state employees, including our elected officials - nearly half of whom, according to a recent survey, have two or more public jobs.

As it always seems to happen, the two state lawmakers heading the committee looking into state pension reform each holds a second public office.

They aren't the only ones. According to the Associated Press's review, 42 percent of the Statehouse - 12 from the Senate and from the 38 Assembly - work more than one public job.

And 21 of our state lawmakers hold two elected offices - including Bayonne Mayor and state Sen. Joseph V. Doria Jr., North Bergen Mayor and state Sen. Nick Sacco, West New York Mayor and Assemblyman Albio Sires, and Union City Mayor and Assemblyman Brian Stack. Each makes $49,000 a year in his part-time job as a state lawmaker, in addition to his salary as mayor.

The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., recently ranked New Jersey as worst in the nation for politicians who "double dip" in the public trough.

It's illegal in 38 states to hold dual offices. In Indiana, it's a felony, punishable by up to three years in prison. But not only is it legal in New Jersey - since 42 percent of lawmakers do it, it's almost the norm.

None of this is news to our readers, and of course, if the people don't like paying multiple salaries to the same elected officials, they don't have to keep voting for them.

But keep in mind you'll be paying them for a long, long time.

These lawmakers are not only drawing multiple salaries today, but those multiple jobs also will inflate the size of their state pensions after they retire and reach age 60.

Obviously, these lawmakers working two or even three jobs must be looking forward to a well-earned retirement.

But perhaps it's not too much to ask that they base their pensions on just one of their many jobs?

http://www.nj.com/search/index.ssf?/b ... .xml?jjournal?edop&coll=3

Posted on: 2006/8/18 16:23
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