NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Gov. Phil Murphy said he and his staff have been practically building a shrine around a fine bottle of bourbon he received as a gift.
Here's the sobering truth, though: Murphy and his fellow executive branch employees are exempt by state law from taking one drop, let alone accepting any gifts that are related to their public duties.
"We are in the process of returning the bottle," he said. "I'll speak for myself - I'm a Murphy, by the way - I orbit the bottle several times a day until we have it figured out exactly where we're sending it back to."
As part of the sweeping ethic reforms Murphy rolled out on Wednesday night, other lawmakers would not be able to accept other gifts - not even bourbon.
About 200 Rutgers undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members were the test audience for his proposals that seek to limit graft, harness lobbyists and increase transparency in the legislative process.
Murphy more than once referred to his "bucket full of reforms" - actually five bills in all - that would have to be approved by the very lawmakers they target.
Be that as it may, he pointed out that the bills have bipartisan sponsorship from Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex; Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic; and Assemblyman Ryan Peters, R-Burlington. And then he proceeded to enthusiastically link his long-held goal of turning the page on politics as usual in Trenton to the young, would-be policy-makers in the audience.
"I sought this office with a pledge that if elected, I would base every decision on considering: doing what is right not just for my next election, but for the next generation," he told the students at The Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, a Rutgers center for the theory and practice of urban planning a public policy scholarship.
"A big part of this pledge was changing the culture in Trenton, to make it more open and accessible, responsible and ultimately more representative of our state and of our great people, to make sure government works for the people and not for special interests."
He also linked the proposed ethics reforms to former Governor James Florio, a mentor to Murphy and the namesake for the visiting scholar in public policy lecture series he was participating in on Wednesday night.
Murphy recalled a speech Florio gave to students at the former Montclair State College about his own ethics reforms, saying the reforms were necessary "to restore reason to the system and faith in government."
It wasn't all business on Livingston Avenue, however. He made references to the hamstring he pulled at the Sea Isle City 5K last weekend, the Rutgers-Michigan men's basketball game he was headed to later that night and joked about how laws are like sausage - and you wouldn't want to see how either is made. He then jokingly said he didn't want to upset the sausage lobby, commenting, "They're very tough."
For the most part, though, his conversation with the students in the room often turned back to the five bills.
"This is an example of the best of what Trenton can be and what we can do," Murphy said. "People willing to take on a failed status quo while working across party lines to bring change. People putting the public good ahead of personal gain. People committed to opening up the process."
Lobbying Reform: The bill will target the shadow lobbying industry by requiring lobbying firms and companies that hire lobbyists to disclose when they hire a person or firm to provide professional services other than lobbying, a proposal that was introduced by Senate President Sweeney last session. This bill will also reduce the threshold for individuals to register as governmental affairs agents from 20 hours of lobbying activities per calendar year to one hour per calendar year.
Eliminating Legislative Exemption to OPRA: The bill will remove the very broad legislative exemption to OPRA that exempts all communications for the use of a legislative member in the course of their official duties. Eliminating this exemption ensures that the executive branch and legislative branch would operate under the same rules. The Legislature would still have access to the advisory, consultative, or deliberative privilege that exists pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.
Aligning Gift and Outside Income Rules: Currently, legislators and legislative staff are permitted to accept gifts as long as they do not know or have reason to believe that the gift is offered to them to influence the performance of their public duties or responsibilities. This bill would subject legislators and legislative staff to the same standard that currently governs executive branch employees, who are prohibited from accepting any gift related in any way to the employee’s public duties. Additionally, this bill will also prevent high-level legislative staff from receiving outside income unless they seek review and approval by the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards. Under current state law, designated senior staff members in the Governor’s Office cannot receive outside income unless they seek review and approval by the State Ethics Commission. Lastly, the bill will require legislators and all executive and legislative branch employees earning $100,000 or more per year to fill out the detailed financial disclosure form promulgated by the State Ethics Commission.
Extending the Cooling Off Period: New Jersey’s “cooling off” period, which statutorily applies to the Governor, Cabinet, and legislators, is currently one year, meaning those officials must wait a full year after leaving their jobs before being able to register as lobbyists. The bill extends this cooling off period from one year to two years and applies it to all executive and legislative branch staff earning $100,000 or more per year as a matter of law. A number of states, including New York, Colorado, and Alabama, have two-year prohibitions, partially based on the rationale that a two-year cooling off period ensures that a former official will not be lobbying during the same legislative session when they were in office.
Legislative Transparency: The legislative proposal will require bills or resolutions not to be voted on unless their final form has been made publicly available on the Legislature’s website for 72 full hours preceding the vote. This closely mirrors a rule in the U.S. House of Representatives that was put in place by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in January 2019. Under the legislative proposal released today, either House would be able to waive this requirement by an emergency 3/4 vote. This legislative proposal will also require the disclosure of all organizations or individuals who submit testimony supporting or opposing bills or resolutions, similar to an existing requirement in California.