Corzine’s Plans for a More Open, Honest, and Accountable Government

2/8/2005

Plan for a More Honest, Open, and Accountable Government

Remarks delivered on 2/11 at the Edward Bloustein School of Planning and public Policy at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

Good morning.

Let me thank Dean Hughes for inviting me to an institution that is preparing the future leadership of New Jersey, to discuss a critical issue before this state today:

Restoring the people’s trust in what should be the people’s government.

I approach this topic as the former CEO of one of the nation’s largest financial institutions, where success was measured not just by doing well, but doing right by shareholders and customers.

I approach this topic as a reformer who went to the U.S. Senate and tackled the crisis of ethics and governance in corporate America in the wake of Enron and WorldCom.

And I approach this topic as a proud New Jersey citizen, motivated to run for Governor in part because this state’s reputation is at risk, as a result of repeated episodes of corruption, favoritism and fraud.

Before turning to a discussion on ethics and governance, let me thank Rutgers for the help, ideas, and advice so generously given by this school during my service in the United States Senate. Rutgers has always been a crucible of innovation and progress. I’ve seen that firsthand, working with your faculty and staff, not only in the fight for financial reform, but in the ongoing effort to protect New Jersey’s open spaces, the fight for a more modern transportation system, and in the new and urgent challenges of homeland security including security at our nation’s chemical plants. There are Senate bills I have fought for that truly bear the stamp of Rutgers.

I have chosen this place and audience to focus on the character of state government because the next generation of leaders being formed here, by choosing public service, have expressed your faith in President Kennedy’s ideal that it can be an “honorable profession.”

But too often in recent years, government in New Jersey has seemed far from that ideal. Again and again, between that ideal and the reality, falls the shadow of the insider deal, the no-bid contract, and the outright betrayal of the public trust.

For too many years, New Jerseyans have come to believe that instead of government of, by and for the people, we have a government of, by and for political contributors, lobbyists, and those who at every level pay to play.

And the people pay for this, by paying in effect, what is a “corruption tax.”

It is no wonder that so many people in New Jersey don’t trust government itself or government officials of either party.

This is not a Republican problem, or a Democratic problem. In administrations both Republican and Democratic, we’ve seen State government spend billions of tax dollars with little or no accountability, and little or no real public input. And that is why this problem can only be fixed by both parties. Reform, cannot and must not, be a political football; simply one more issue used for partisan advantage. The people of New Jersey don’t have the patience for that anymore. As Acting Governor Codey has said and shown, it is time for a change.

We can no longer afford government contracts awarded as a payback to the best connected, instead of going to the best qualified.

I am committed to lead the change our state needs and with the support of all who seek a better deal for the people of New Jersey, and millions of voters this November, we can and will succeed.

We can and will lead this state on the path of honest, open, and effective government.

If I’m elected your next governor, New Jersey will move in the right direction right ethically, right financially, and right for the taxpayers of our state.

I want to put the people back in the driver’s seat.

First, I am proposing that we amend the constitution and establish a new statewide office an elected, not appointed, Comptroller — a powerful watchdog over the conduct of government at all levels from the Governor’s office to the local DMV.

The Comptroller will answer to the people and no one else.

We often hear that the New Jersey’s Governorship is the most powerful in the country.

Well, I want some of that power given back to the people.

And that means an elected Comptroller empowered to deal impartially with any official, any Department, any contract, and any program.

I have pledged already that as Governor, my decisions will be based on merit. I refuse to play the old politics of recruiting campaign contributors by promising rewards to them.

You have my promise that I will be an independent Governor, accountable to the people.

But with an elected state Comptroller, you, the people, will now have a watchdog who will be your eyes and ears to make sure that commitment is kept at every level of state government.

The Comptroller won’t be a powerless critic. He or she will have real authority the authority to conduct comprehensive audits of all government programs at all levels from school districts to State agencies and State authorities.

New Jersey State government is a 40 billion dollar enterprise.

I can tell you, if New Jersey were a company, its shareholders would have demanded an independent, outside auditor a long time ago. Now they’ll get one. And they’ll get audits regularly.
I can also tell you, as a former CEO, that responsible leaders embrace and encourage accountability. That’s the only kind of leader I know how to be.

The Comptroller will review all government contracts over $1 million to make sure that fundamental questions are answered before any money is spent.

Here are some examples: Do we need to be spending money on this contract at all? If we do, is the contract going to the most qualified, most competitive vendor? Is the state being overcharged, or is the contractor underperforming?

It is time to end the malpractice of single-bid and no-bid contracts. The bidding process should be fair, open and public. Doing it any other way is worse than wrong. It doesn’t work: it doesn’t make good business sense and it can rob not only public money, but public confidence. We can no longer allow exceptions to public bidding rules in order to facilitate backroom deals.

The Comptroller will ensure that all government contracts go to the bidder who can provide the best service at the best price, period. The test will be the public good, not political contributions or connections.

I know, from my many years in business, that large organizations can become bloated, inefficient and even corrupt – when no one questions how things are done.

As a U.S. Senator, I authored tough corporate reforms included in the Sarbanes-Oxley law. It was a bipartisan effort. It is also one of my proudest achievements. We have raised accounting standards, improved corporate governance, and are holding cheaters criminally liable for defrauding shareholders and the public. It’s tough, and it didn’t make me a lot of friends in certain parts of Wall Street. But you know what: It wasn’t just right for the public; it was essential to a fair, honest, and credible financial marketplace.

It’s even worse when government fails to meet basic standards – because when programs are inefficient and agencies become pawns of special interests, the public is cheated twice.

First, because taxpayer dollars are wasted. And second, because urgent needs go unmet, or half-met, or become pretexts for unjustified profiteering.

Like the Government Accountability Office at the federal level, New Jersey’s Comptroller will conduct performance reviews to make sure:

-That the state programs we’re paying for are needed, and,

-And that the programs we need are being run without abuse, corruption, failure or favoritism.

The Comptroller will have the power to investigate complaints of fraud, waste, and mismanagement, and the mandate to report the results directly to the people.

And where there’s evidence of a crime, the Comptroller will cooperate with our law enforcement officials to make sure that corrupt public officials are punished to the full extent of the law.

As Governor, I will appoint an Attorney General who will be independent and aggressive, and will make the prosecution of public corruption a top priority.

The Comptroller will have the resources to hire professional auditors, evaluators and investigators — and to secure and use the best technology.

The Comptroller will also make sure that agencies live up to their obligations under the law to make sure that small businesses get a fair shake, especially those owned by minorities and women.

Some complain we can’t afford another government agency. That’s just an empty excuse to perpetuate the stats quo.

I say we can’t afford not to take every step to make our government work effectively, efficiently and honestly.

It’s time for New Jersey to join 15 other states that elect auditors or comptrollers, including Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut.

This is about ethics in government which is fundamental. But it’s also about fiscal responsibility which is essential. If we could prevent just one disastrous contract like the 400 million dollar EZ Pass deal, we could fund this new office and return money to the treasury.

The Comptroller’s Office will pay for itself, serve New Jersey taxpayers, and rebuild trust in government.

It’s true that today there are some state government agencies designed to audit different elements of government spending. But if you ask the people of New Jersey whether we have too much independent oversight of government spending, I know the answer you’d get.

On this issue, we need a belt and suspenders approach.

Whenever we can consolidate and avoid duplication, we will.

But the priority must be to get an elected Comptroller up and running. That’s why I want us to hold the election for that office as soon as we can.

I will ask the voters to approve this new office in 2006, and then in 2007, the people of New Jersey will choose our first Comptroller for a two year term.

We will hold an election for a four-year term on the same cycle as the election for Governor, beginning in 2009.

And just as there’s no reason to wait until 2009 for a Comptroller, there’s also no reason to wait until 2009 for a Lieutenant Governor. The voters have the right to decide who will succeed when the Governor leave office.

I believe that this fall, the voters will approve the proposal for a Lieutenant Governor.

But we should hold the election for that position before 2009.
The next step I will take is vital and long overdue, and rarely acted on by politicians, and in too limited a way.

Pay-to-play.

It MUST STOP. Everywhere in New Jersey.

If I’m elected, I will not only end pay-to-play for State contracts.

I will work to pass a law ending pay-to-play at every level of government in this state from school districts, to towns, to local authorities, to county governments.

All of us have a right to expect that when decisions are made about government contracts, the only determining factors should be quality and price.

And businesses that provide important services to state and local governments construction companies, engineers, accountants, and law firms should compete on the merits.

The package of contract documents should not be accompanied, forwarded, or followed by a batch of tickets to the next political fundraiser.
Some will say that eliminating pay-to-play, root and branch, will never play in Trenton.

I reject that.

I intend to come to Trenton next January with the support of millions of New Jerseyans who are fed up with the old politics

Their message will be unmistakable and it will be heard. And those who refuse to hear it, who think there’s an easy deal to be made, or convenient evasions to be manufactured, will find out that when I give my word, I mean business. And when the people give their mandate, they expect it to be respected. Those who hold on to play as you go, at any level, will be rejected at the polls and New Jersey will change.

There is a third major reform we need – to tighten the ethics laws for those who work in government.

We must close the revolving door between public office and special interest lobbying.

Public office should be a public trust, not a pathway to influence peddling.

For years, some former government employees have abused current rules that are supposed to stop them from lobbying on issues they “substantially” worked on in government.

Under my administration, this will no longer be a matter of interpretation.

I will put in place an absolute, unqualified ban on revolving-door lobbying by senior staff in the executive branch: If you serve in this capacity, then for a full year after you leave, you will not be able to lobby state government. You will not be able to hand out a contract worth tens of millions of dollars to a company one day, and then days or weeks later, go out and go to work for that company.
Today I have outlined three fundamental changes:

– An elected Comptroller

– Ending pay-to-play at every level
– Closing the revolving door

Other reforms are critical, from a ban on wheeling, to an end to pension padding, to strengthening public financing of campaigns.

Acting Governor Codey and the Legislature are also moving a bill to re-establish the Public Advocate as a cabinet office. It should be passed without delay.

At the same time, we should give the public not just more control, but complete control, over the State Ethics Commission, which hears ethics complaints against officials and employees in the executive branch.

Right now, seven of the Commission’s nine members are government officials.

We need an Ethics Commission where all the members represent the public.
I don’t just want ethics in government to be an issue in New Jersey. I want it to be an ideal and I want it to be real.

This is not impossible; indeed, it is fundamental to our future. Good government is good business. Countless businesspeople have told me that the culture of corruption, favoritism and fraud has weakened their desire to do business here.

In Washington, I took on the abuses on Wall Street. In Trenton, I will take on abuses in state government. I know the right way may not be easy; those who profit from the politics of the past will resist the coming of the future. But I know we can and will prevail because I won’t be anyone’s Governor but yours.

And let me repeat my insistence that both parties face this problem. But let me be clear, I am leading the way, and I will get this done.

With your votes, your help, and your continuing involvement, the people of New Jersey will take back the government of New Jersey.

And then in future years, when the graduates of the Edward J. Bloustein School lead this state and its communities, our governance will be worthy of the idealism and talent that you have brought to this school.