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Monday, October 10, 2005

Transparent - Not in New Jersey

To continue the series on political corruption, today I'm looking at the issue of transparency. In governance, transparency infers openness, communication wth the public, and accountability. New Jersey lacks all of these.

The number one political complaint in New Jersey is high property taxes. Quick, New Jersey, who sets your tax rates? Ah, it's a trick question. The answer is: Everyone does. The city, the county, the school board, and the state legislature. We pay school taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, income taxes, and several special assessments. Who decides how much gets taxed and on whom the tax falls?

Let's try another route. How does a bill become law in New Jersey? It passes both Houses of the State Legislature - then must go through a secret, closed-door conference committee between Assembly and Senate members - before it is presented to the Governor. The Governor can sign it, veto it, pocket veto, or give a conditional veto (which sends part of the bill back to the Legislature to get straight before it becomes law). Simple, right? Yeah, except a bill must also be read three times before it can be voted on. At any time it can be sent to committee, where no one ever hears from it again, since it is up to the committee chair whether or not any action is taken on the bill. Amendments can be attached that make the bill so weak that it might as well not be passed - or change the nature of the bill entirely.

Of course, that's true for every state legislature except Nebraska - who eliminated their bicameral legislature many years ago to enforce accountability upon their government.

In New Jersey, there are so many commissions and special government task forces that it seems almost like the state is drowning in them. The actual reason for this is that it allows do-nothing politicians to escape the responsibility of showing results. You think the casinos should be run differently? Ah, well, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission is in charge of that. Think your utility provider is ripping you off? Don't call your State Senator, call the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Concerned that over-building will destroy wetlands? Better write the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. Would you like to work in New Jersey? Try the New Jersey State Employment and Training Commission. Hey, I can keep this up. We have Economic Development Authorities, Incinerator Authorities, and board for everything from Banking to Nursing to Morticians.

This is not to say that at least some of this isn't necessary. It is. Trust me, I don't want someone who is "pretty good at patching people up" working in the hospital - I'd much rather have a certified nurse. What's different in New Jersey is the number of these boards and commissions that operate as "independent" sections of government. They receive a legislative authorization to exist, then they never seem to be under the control of law from that point on. They don't really report to anyone and, in the case of misconduct (or more commonly, no conduct - as in not even showing up for work) there is no one who even knows, much less someone to report it to.

There is no accountability because everything that matters is someone else's problem. There's no communication - I can't even get the Hudson County Assemblypersons who are running for office to answer letters asking if they would support Governor Senator Corzine's ethic reforms. There is absolutely no openness. We simply send our taxes to Trenton and hope that someone there decides to use them for something good. None of the state's newspapers can keep an accurate account of government because they would need a staff somewhere about the size of the New York Times to even track people down, much less get into closed meetings or get comments from people that should be working in our interest.

New Jersey is the only state I know of where property taxes are so heinous that the state actually refunds additional funds from income tax collection to ease the sting taken by city and county government.

Enough is enough, New Jersey. There's too many weeds in the Garden State and something is starting to rot the entire city of Trenton.

It's time for a little Sunshine in the Garden State.

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