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Democratic Lawmakers Push for Transparency to Preserve Integrity of Process

With the state’s legislative redistricting process firmly underway, three of the Legislature’s leading advocates for open and transparent government – Senator Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman and Assemblywoman Nellie Pou – today called on Republicans to immediately shine some light on a shadowy fundraising group they’ve formed by disclosing the group’s donors and expenses.

The lawmakers said immediate disclosure would eliminate any undue outside influence in the process and put the interests of the residents of New Jersey first.

In June of 2009, the legislature’s two ranking minority leaders – Senator Tom Kean, Jr. and Assemblyman Alex DeCroce – created Center for a Better New Jersey, a nonprofit clearinghouse for private donations to help the GOP draw the new maps.

The group is organized as a 501(c)4 – the same as the recently defunct Reform Jersey Now – and by law does not have to disclose its donors or expenses.

Weinberg, Watson Coleman and Pou noted that requests from the both the public and state newspapers to disclose donors of this group have been met with the response that Republicans will comply with their legal obligations, essentially meaning the public will learn nothing about this group until long after a new map has been drawn.

“If Reform Jersey Now were Frankenstein, then the Center for a Better New Jersey would definitely be the bride of Frankenstein,” said Weinberg (D-Bergen), a leading critic of Reform Jersey Now. “The Center for a Better New Jersey and Reform Jersey Now share the same political DNA and were created to allow private political contributions to circumvent state pay-to-play and financial disclosure laws. We have no way of knowing if contributors who have maxed-out on reportable contributions to the Republican leadership PACs are now being directed to give undisclosed, unlimited amounts to the Center for a Better New Jersey.”

“We need to pause for a moment to have a candid conversation about transparency,” said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer). “Quite simply, this group is an affront to our laws and the interests of the people of New Jersey and the fair, open and bipartisan process the apportionment commission is supposed to be undertaking. They are bringing big money influence into what is widely regarded as one of the best, fairest and most open redistricting processes in the nation.”

“The public has not always unanimously agreed with the outcome of our redistricting process, but at least they’ve been able to have faith that it was done in an upstanding way,” said Pou (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Thanks to this secretive Republican fundraising effort, the public can no longer have that faith. The laws that Democrats and Republicans alike worked hard to pass to create a more transparent government and restrict the influence of big money in the political process are now being subverted.”

The legislators pointed out that this shadow group will only undermine the overwhelming public interest that has already been shown in the process. The first two public hearings to discuss the redrawing of the map were met with capacity crowds in both Camden and Toms River last weekend. Two more public hearings are scheduled in February, with additional hearings also likely.

They went on to note that the recently disbanded Reform Jersey Now raised $624,000 to back Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s initiatives. When donors finally were revealed voluntarily, after persistent public demand, it was discovered that the list of donors included firms with hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts.

As an example of the hypocrisy at play, the women lawmakers also pointed out that in 2008, when then-Gov. Jon Corzine created a nonprofit organization to promote his plan to pay down state debt through toll hikes, Senator Tom Kean, Jr. urged the Democratic governor to “immediately” disclose information about donors to “Save Our State NJ Inc.,” saying it should be made public before the Legislature voted on the toll plan. Governor Corzine went on to make a complete disclosure.

In support of their request for transparency, the women legislators also pointed to another on-the-record comment that Senator Tom Kean, Jr. himself made at that time: “We are fortunate to live in a state with one of the most stringent sunshine laws – allowing the public to see government in action. But Governor Corzine wants to keep the public in the dark about the private conversations he is having with certain members of the business community and politicians.”

“Although republicans might insist that the cash raised by this group will ensure ‘greater public participation in the redistricting process,’ what it really means is that untold corporations with a stake in state business will be entitled to a closed-door seat at the table,” added Weinberg.”

“The entire process will be tainted thanks to this corrosive Republican end-run around our open government and campaign finance laws. That simply is unacceptable,” added Watson Coleman.

“To my Republican colleagues, I say, we can do better. I ask them to remember the adage, ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant,'” added Pou.

The lawmakers also pointed to a January 18, 2011 editorial in The Star-Ledger which summed up the situation perfectly:

“This public process is about to become murky with anonymous donors and a shadowy organization of cartographers working behind the scenes. . . . Money, of course, only guarantees greater participation by those who have it to give. And once donors give, especially if their identity is shielded, voters have a right to ask: What did they want in return? . . .

Once again, the GOP is skirting pay-to-play laws. The solution is simple: Reveal the names of these donors, too.

If the state is going to redraw voting maps, voters have a right to know who’s paying for it.”

Weinberg, Watson Coleman and Pou concluded by joining together in echoing the sentiment, “Today, we renew our request that the Center for a Better New Jersey immediately reveal its list of donors and its expenditures. Only then can we really call this process transparent.”