Car insurance bills shine spotlight on lawmaker ethics
Senate president denies charge he pushed bills that could enrich him
Bills sponsored by Senate President Nicholas Scutari have been slammed by critics who say they will boost car insurance costs for motorists and enrich attorneys like himself. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)
In New Jersey’s part-time Legislature, lawmakers are often involved in legislation related directly to their full-time careers.
Educators vote to make it easier for students to become teachers, law enforcement officers help prevent police reform bills from becoming law, and small business owners push bills meant to help businesses thrive.
Often these votes generate little controversy, especially if the bills pass with wide support. While vigilant watchdogs might voice concerns about conflicts of interest, lawmakers say their day jobs offer an insider’s knowledge that helps them better shape potential policy.
But sometimes public policy can lead to financial windfalls. That’s why questions are swirling about whether two top lawmakers will financially benefit from a package of bills Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law this month, especially one that will raise minimum car insurance coverage requirements for drivers by as much as four times the prior minimum. Advocates and insurance companies say the change will undoubtedly lead to higher insurance costs for consumers.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union), both personal injury attorneys, sponsored that bill, which passed in the waning days of the budget session when hundreds of bills advanced. The men said it will protect drivers who opt for minimum insurance coverage by mandating more financial help when they get into crashes. Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer (R-Gloucester) said it will “only support lawyers getting richer.”
The senators have previously denied any conflicts of interest. In a recent phone interview, Scutari said the bill won’t specifically enrich him, adding he “barely” handles insurance cases anymore.
“There’s lots of lawyers in the Legislature, and some of them handle cases related to insurance. Not just us do, and I’m sure they voted on it,” he said. “I know that’s permitted because it doesn’t specifically touch upon the things we do.”
The car insurance bill was one of a handful Scutari and Bramnick pushed. Other bills that didn’t pass the full Legislature before its summer break would require all car insurance plans to include a minimum of $250,000 in personal injury protection — up from the current $15,000 minimum — and bar drivers from using private health insurance coverage as the primary payer for personal injury protection coverage.
Experts suggest Scutari’s and Bramnick’s vocal support of the bill could cross into questionable ethical territory. Scutari appeared at a Senate committee hearing on one of the bills in June to chastise critics and say the “people of New Jersey need this Legislature to protect them from themselves.”
Kirk Johnson, professor of justice studies at Montclair State University, said lawmakers should recuse themselves from debates and voting on bills that could enrich themselves and the people around them.
“In a perfect world, yes, you should recuse yourself, and you should report that. But because money is such a powerful driver in our politics, even locally and statewide, unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as often as it should,” Johnson told the New Jersey Monitor.
Bramnick did not respond to requests for comment. He defended the minimum coverage bill during an interview in June, and noted all kinds of lawyers, from personal injury to defense attorneys, serve in the Legislature. The 120-member body has 27 practicing attorneys.
“There are teachers in the legislature who vote for issues involving teachers, NJEA representatives, there’s people who are pro-environment who work in environmental legislation, you’d have to bar everybody,” he said. “Most of the time, I will come down on issues that favor the consumer over the insurance company. That’s generally my bent and I’m going to continue to do that.”
What are New Jersey’s ethics rules?
While the guardrails put in place may not be used often, the New Jersey Legislature does have an ethics code and a legislative ethics committee to enforce it.
John Farmer, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, pointed to passages in the code of ethics directing members not to act in a way that “impairs the objectivity or judgment” while in public office. Legislators should avoid voting or taking action on bills in which they have “a personal interest,” he said.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards is authorized to investigate and hold hearings to determine whether the public trust is violated, or if a legislator personally benefits from legislation. The committee last met in July 2021 and met six times during the 2018-2019 legislative session.
The code of ethics also suggests that as long as a bill does not help just one lawmaker — or their family or business — but an entire profession, the committee can determine there is no conflict of interest, Farmer said. He declined to comment specifically on the car insurance legislation or the actions of either senator.
Johnson said New Jersey’s ethics rules clearly define when a lawmaker’s involvement in a bill becomes unethical.
For example, if a lawmaker who has a teacher’s pension wants to sponsor a bill directing millions of dollars into the pension fund, that would be an obvious conflict of interest, he said. But cost-of-living pay hikes for school employees in light of inflation — which would help the entire sector — would be fine.
“It’s benefitting a broad spectrum of people rather than just (the lawmaker), and the rest of the constituency as well,” he said. “If it’s clearly benefitting you — and especially making things worse for your constituents — that’s a huge red flag.”
Scutari said in a recent interview that changes he seeks to insurance policies will benefit all drivers and said his actions are no different from any other lawmaker.
“What about all the other lawyers in the Legislature that handle car accident cases? What about all the dentists that handle dentists’ cases? What about the teachers that handle legislation that’s been proposed about teachers? This has been done a million times over. There’s nothing to this,” Scutari said.
The Office of Legislative Services, the nonpartisan office that provides support services to the Legislature, houses an ethics counsel to advise lawmakers and legislative aides. A spokesperson did not respond to several requests for comment.
Scutari said he’s spoken to the Office of Legislative Services and the ethics counsel “a million times” in his 19 years in the Legislature.
Criticism surrounding the law
The insurance bills passed largely along party lines, but critics voiced their concerns before they advanced.
Most criticism, which also came from progressive advocates and insurance companies, focused on how the bill upping mandatory coverage will burden lower-income residents already struggling to pay for food, rent, and utilities during a period when prices have spiked.
The bill, which Murphy signed into law earlier this month, increases the minimum amount of liability and uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage that car insurance policies must have from $15,000 to anywhere from $25,000 to $70,000, depending on when the policy is renewed.
Murphy signed two others in the package as well — one measure set to take effect in November requiring business owners and landlords to carry liability insurance for death or bodily injury at rental properties and another requiring insurers to disclose policy limits upon request by an attorney under certain circumstances, which will take effect in October.
Farmer pointed to the advantages and disadvantages of a part-time Legislature, like having members who are out in the “real world” and can bring that expertise in a variety of fields to legislative judgments. It keeps members in touch with common concerns of voters, he said.
“It also, however, creates the potential for conflicts, which are difficult to parse and extremely fact-sensitive,” he said.
If it's clearly benefitting you — and especially making things worse for your constituents — that's a huge red flag. – Kirk Johnson, professor at Montclair State University
If it's clearly benefitting you — and especially making things worse for your constituents — that's a huge red flag.
– Kirk Johnson, professor at Montclair State University
Johnson, the Montclair University professor, also said he didn’t want to comment specifically on the two senators, but said there’s an “overarching problem of politicians knowingly proposing laws and policies that benefit them, and at the same time, hinder the people that elected them in the first place.”
He added that ethical boundaries crossed by a senate president, as the second-most powerful elected official in the state behind the governor, could set a dangerous precedent.
“Once they retire and you have the next class of politicians, you want to set an example for the successors. It’s having a high level of consciousness and being aware of that, ethically speaking, and trying to set an ethical example is extremely important,” he said.
In response, Scutari said he’s “not anywhere near any ethical boundaries” and said he’s “never voted on any legislation that was specific to me, and I’m certain Senator Bramnick hasn’t either.”
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