N.J.’s part-time legislature exposes state to abuse. It’s not likely to change.

By: - July 28, 2021 8:00 am

The bill faces an unclear path in the Legislature. (Photo by Chris Boswell/Getty Images)

In early 2003, reports accusing a top member of the New Jersey Legislature of overbilling municipalities where he served as an attorney began to emerge in the press.

They charged that co-Senate President John Bennett sent duplicate bills to Marlboro Township, which his law firm represented. The saga saw party support ebb from Bennett and eventually sink the re-election campaign of one of the state’s top Republican legislators, but it brought little attention to the structure that enabled the alleged abuses: Lawmaking is a part-time job in the Garden State.

“If your full-time occupation was the state legislature — as it is in Congress — and you weren’t allowed to earn outside money because the expectation is you are going to be in session all the time and are therefore not going to make outside sources of income, then you would not run into that kind of trouble,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

Lawmakers in most other American states are part time, too. In New Jersey, 100 of the state’s 119 sitting lawmakers hold jobs outside of state government.

Bennett’s story is hardly the only one of its kind. In 2008, Wayne Bryant, once the chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee, was convicted of funneling nearly $13 million in taxpayer funds to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where he held a $35,000 no-show job, the following year.

A federal grand jury had issued a 20-count corruption indictment against Bryant a year earlier, when the Democrat still held his post in the legislature.

John Dorsey, a Morris County Republican who served as Senate majority leader, also faced questions after a review of his billing records found he charged public entities for hours spent on legislative business in Trenton. Those questions were a factor in his 1993 ouster from the legislature.

There’s at least a modicum of support among lawmakers for a move toward a full-time legislature.

“I think it’s a conversation worth discussing and worth moving on,” said state Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth). “We’ve got a lot of attorneys in the legislature. A lot of different folks that I’m sure have to work hard to recuse themselves in situations.”

But there hasn’t been a push to move the legislature to a more demanding schedule. Such systems exist in just 10 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including in neighboring New York and Pennsylvania.

While a change to full-time lawmaking obviates some concerns over conflicts, it could also deal with a more insidious consequence of the nature of New Jersey’s legislature — that professions with flexible hours end up vastly overrepresented under the golden dome.

In effect, the nature of the legislature can shut out low-income residents and younger individuals.

“For folks who have more demanding jobs, that means less time to meet with constituents and be available as a public figure. For the folks who have more control over their time, they’re able to make those things more of a priority,” said Brandon McKoy, president of the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. “There’s definitely an equity of access issue.”

Lawmakers’ other gigs

At least 28 practicing attorneys hold seats in the Statehouse, according to a New Jersey Monitor review of financial disclosures filed by lawmakers. Legislators like Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth) and Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) who have law degrees but do not currently practice are excluded from that count.

Another 18 hold posts in local or county government, and no fewer than 17 own their own businesses. Five hold leadership posts with labor unions.

Just 19 legislators have no employment outside of the legislature, and a majority of those earn retirement income or have a spouse who supplements earnings.

New Jersey’s lawmakers earn an annual salary of $49,000 and receive no health benefits. The state’s median household income is $82,545, per figures from the Census Bureau.

Full-time lawmakers earn more. Legislators in California, the highest paying state, make just under $115,000 annually. In New York, that figure is $110,000, though Midwestern states bring the average salary for full-time state lawmakers down to $75,242.

A move to a full-time legislature would almost certainly necessitate a politically sensitive salary bump for lawmakers. And a higher salary could change the demographics of the statehouse: Some legislators may be dissuaded from returning if that meant giving up lucrative private work, while better pay could convince lower-income residents to seek elected office.

“At $49,000 a year, it’s a nice salary, but it’s certainly not in New Jersey, by any standard, a full-time wage or something that you can have be your exclusive income, so that winds up limiting who can be involved,” Rasmussen said. “You can be involved if you have other sources of income. You can’t really be involved if you don’t have other sources of income.”

It could also eliminate lengthy legislative breaks. This year, neither chamber of the legislature is expected to return for a voting session before November’s elections, when all 120 seats are on the ballot. In years lawmakers aren’t seeking re-election, they typically recess after approving a budget near the end of June and return in September.

The breaks aren’t periods of complete inactivity — Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) is working during the current recess to streamline the confirmation process — and lawmakers also conduct state business outside of session days or committee hearings.

Despite that, it’s not likely lawmakers will act move toward a full-time schedule.

“We would need 100 state legislators to decide they’re voluntarily going to change their livelihoods,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a little tough to see that happening.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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