New Jersey As Good-Government Leader? Believe It
New Jersey isn't normally the first state that springs to mind when you're searching for an example of good government. Not even close. In fact, just the opposite.
But the Garden State can now boast that, compared to most other states, it is a democratic (small "d") oasis.
That's because New Jersey was awarded one of the highest grades for government accountability by an investigative journalism project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
The organizations examined the states to see what laws for ethics and transparency they had on the books and how well those statutes were enforced.
No states got an "A", an indicator of the just how wide the gap is between what state governors and legislators say on the campaign trail and what they actually do when they're in office.
In a surprise to even New Jerseyans, their state got the highest score, 87, the only state to earn a B plus.
"Even one of New Jersey's top elected officials was stunned to hear that the Garden State ranked first in the State Integrity Investigation.
" 'I'm still in shock,' Senate Majority Leader Lorretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said, laughing. 'If we're number one, I feel bad for the rest of the states.' "
Her statement no doubt spoke for many.
In her report on New Jersey, journalist Colleen O'Dea acknowledged just how passing strange it was that New Jersey of all places should lead the nation in such good government traits of transparency and accountability.
"The ranking may seem counter-intuitive.
"Yes, Gov. Chris Christie made his reputation by busting more than 100 public officials when he was a U.S. Attorney in the state. And yes, at least five state legislators have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to official misconduct since 2004. And yes, others were investigated for lesser misdeeds or resigned before being charged.
"There was also a string of costly procurement debacles involving the motor vehicle inspection program, implementation of a toll road payment system and state-funded school construction.
"But thanks largely to these moral missteps and hard work by good-government groups and legislators, New Jersey now has some of the toughest ethics and anti-corruption laws in the nation. The Garden State ranks first in the integrity probe for ethics enforcement, first for executive branch accountability and fourth for procurement practices."
Connecticut got a B with a 86 percent score while several states received grades of B minus — Washington State (83 percent), California (81 percent) and Nebraska (80 percent.)
On the other end of the spectrum, Georgia brought up the rear with a failing grade of 49 percent. The Peach State earned that dubious honor by having ethics and open government laws filled with exemptions and through lax enforcement.
An excerpt from the Georgia report by Jim Walls, a former investigative reporter with the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
"Georgia law books are chock-full of statutes written to curtail undue influence on political activity and public policy.
"So utilities and insurance companies can't give to a candidate seeking an office that regulates them. Legislators can't take political donations while in session. Politicians can't use campaign money for personal benefit. State workers can't accept gifts from vendors or lobbyists.
"Except when they can.
"Time and again, Georgia journalists and watchdog groups have found that money finds a way to flow around those laws..."