Home>Feature>Plan to improve legislators financial disclosure now stalled for nearly 15 months

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, left, with Senate President Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Plan to improve legislators financial disclosure now stalled for nearly 15 months

Sweeney had said he would raise reported income thresholds

By Nikita Biryukov, April 12 2021 12:01 am

A plan to update financial disclosures filed by the state’s legislators remains stalled nearly 15 months after Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) announced plans to raise income reporting thresholds.

Sweeney last January said he intended to raise the reported income thresholds. Under current rules, state lawmakers report income using brackets of less than $10,000, between $10,000 and $24,999, Between $25,000 and $49,999 or greater than $50,000.

Members of the Assembly and Senate are paid an annual salary of $49,000.

Lawmakers are required to disclose their finances under the legislative code of ethics, not by statute. While state law requires the legislature adopt a code of ethics, it does not specify that code include provisions on financial disclosure.

Sweeney in late March said discussion were ongoing.

“I’m still talking to the Assembly about it,” he said in a press gaggle following a voting session on March 25. “You’re not talking about a whole lot. You’re talking about raising the brackets, you know what I mean?”

Kevin McArdle, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), said the matter was still on the to-do list.

“The issue remains among a myriad of topics before the Assembly,” he said. “As is always the case in the Assembly, we will undertake a thorough and thoughtful review of any proposals regarding this issue.”

The proposal, announced weeks before New Jersey reported its first case of COVID-19, has sat on the backburner for more than a year, and despite the chamber leaders’ statements, there haven’t been signs of life in that time.

It’s not clear that, even if talks were to accelerate, lawmakers are willing approve new disclosure rules before filings for 2020 come due on May 15. When he announced his intent to weigh changes to financial disclosures last January, Sweeney said he intended the push to be complete early in the year so legislators would have time to familiarize themselves with the new rules.

Disclosures filed by New Jersey’s state lawmakers are more opaque than the burdensome filings required of members of Congress and legislators in some other states.

The divergence in disclosure requirements is clear when examining filings submitted by state legislators who sought federal office.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s (R-Dennis) 2017 state disclosure, filed when he was both a state senator and a Democrat, listed three entries of investment income, two for himself and one for his spouse, all valued at above $50,000. They could be worth millions of dollars or as little as $150,000.

Those entries, ones for Guardian Insurance Scott Trade and NC American Annuity, did not name specific stocks or funds he was invested in. Though some state lawmakers disclose individual stock holdings, the legislative code of ethics does not require they do so.

A disclosure Van Drew filed as a candidate for Congress in December 2017, received by House officials in January 2018, did list individual investments, showing between $30,000.02 and $100,000 in income from holdings in two Vanguard mutual funds owned by the congressman’s spouse.

It also reported two rental properties that each brought in income of between $5,001 and $15,000 at two rental properties. Those properties appeared on Van Drew’s state filing, where their income was reported to be between $10,000 and $24,999 for a South Seaville property and between $25,000 and $49,999.99 for a Pleasantville property.

Allison Murphy, Van Drew’s longtime chief of staff, did not immediately respond to a 1:32 p.m. call seeking comment on the congressman’s federal filing.

Reporting brackets for the federal filings are both more precise and more numerous than those that exist at the state level.

Federal disclosures use eleven brackets, with the first used to report holdings without any income.

The others report income of between $1 and $200, $1,001 and $2,500, $2,501 and $5,000, $15,001 and $50,000, $50,001 and $100,000, $100,001 and $1 million, $1,000,001 and $5 million, and, finally, of income worth more than $5 million. There’s a separate bracket to note income of a spouse or dependent child worth above $1 million.

The federal filings also require lawmakers and candidates disclose the value of their assets. State filings do not.

Earned income — salaries, bonuses, commissions and the like — on the state disclosures are reported using the same four brackets. Federal filings require discrete earned income figures.

Van Drew, then a practicing dentist, reported more than $50,000 in income from that job on his 2017 state filing. His federal disclosure said he earned $87,000 from his practice that year.

Legislators’ financial disclosures are also less invasive than those submitted by certain high-level executive branch employees.

The latter filings require officials to disclose all assets valued above $1,000 held by themselves, their spouse or dependent children and use a greater number of income brackets — seven to the legislature’s four — topping out at more than $500,000.

They also require officials to disclose individual securities and list public contracts in which they or their immediate family hold.

Gov. Phil Murphy in an ethics reform package introduced in last February proposed the legislature adopt the more stringent forms used by the State Ethics Commission, though that proposal went nowhere.

Click HERE to view completed financial disclosure forms for the New Jersey Legislature.

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