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Gov. Phil Murphy.(Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Murphy proposes stable of ethics reforms

Governor wants to do away with OPRA’s legislative exemption, shadow lobbying

By Nikita Biryukov, February 19 2020 5:40 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy announced a swath of ethics reforms for Trenton that include the elimination of the legislative exemption provided by the Open Public Records Act, more strenuous financial disclosures for lawmakers and a ban on shadow lobbying, among others.

Legislators are provided two exemptions under OPRA. The first shields communications with constituents.

The other allows legislators to block the disclosure of any document created in the course of their official duties.

That exemption, which effectively allows lawmakers to block all OPRA requests, would be done away with under Murphy’s plan.

“If a lobbyist — who is advocating for his or her client’s interest, not ours — sends a draft bill to a staff member in my office, it is a public record that can be disclosed. But, if that same lobbyist sends that same bill to a legislative staff member, it is exempt from disclosure,” Murphy said. “That’s what you call an unlevel playing field.”

That measure is likely to face considerable roadblocks in the statehouse.

Senate President Steve Sweeney has repeatedly said he would oppose such a measure, and while lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick have said they would be open to exploring reforms to the legislative exemption, none made a full-throated backing the reform.

Murphy’s other proposals will likely be easier sells.

His ban on shadow lobbying, a practice by which spokespeople and others who are not officially registered with the state attempt to influence legislation, will likely earn the backing of the senate president, who announced a similar measure last year.

“We know it’s not just the work of lobbyists, but PR people, lawyers, research analysts, and the amorphously titled ‘consultants and advisors’ who often have their own pre-existing relationships and often have just as much, if not more, pull with the people lobbyists target,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s proposal to rework legislative financial disclosures to more closely mirror those filed by members of the executive branch may also win support from Democratic leaders.

During the lame duck session, Sweeney said he would support reworking financial disclosures for his members, specifically citing an increase to the reported income brackets, which currently top out at $50,000.

“The salary for a Senator is $49,000, so obviously we need to raise it,” Sweeney said in January.

Under Murphy’s proposal, staffers in executive and legislative offices making $100,000 or more would fill a more complete disclosure form.

The governor is also seeking to kill a Trenton practice that involves bills being amended seconds before — or sometimes even during — a vote.

That rule would require the final version of a bill to sit for 72 hours before seeing a vote.

Alternatively, the legislature could move such measures with a three-quarters emergency vote.

Further reforms would double the cooling-off period to government staffers entering the lobbying industry from one year to two years and lower the lobbying registration threshold from 20 hours per calendar year to one hour per one hour per calendar year.

Murphy is also seeking to bring gift rules for the legislature in line with those for his branch and require legislative staffers to seek approval from the State Ethics Commission before seeking concurrent outside work.

“I am sure there are those who will hear what I am proposing tonight and criticize these proposals because they may challenge, or even threaten, a status quo in which they are very comfortable,” Murphy said. “But, as Governor Florio reminds us, in the ultimate reckoning, theirs is a sure-thing losing cause.”

It’s possible that Murphy’s proposals will win support from some Republican lawmakers.

He said former Gov. Dick Codey, Assemblyman Ryan Peters and State Sen. Chris Brown will sponsor bills for the reforms that require legislative action.

Peters and Brown represent two South Jersey districts with split representation. Put another way, they’re top legislative targets for Democratic legislative leaders.

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