New Jersey has become great fodder for talk-show hosts and comedians when it comes to corruption. By no means does this make any corruption acceptable, and there are steps we can take to lessen the problem. But the numbers belie the facts making our image worse than we really are.
Using U.S. Census Bureau statistics, USA Today reported federal corruption convictions per 100,000 residents from 1998 until 2008, and the results are quite amazing. New Jersey just cracks the top 20 percent of states (tied with Ohio and lower than Delaware).
How did we get this reputation? Quite simply, we sit in the middle of two of the country's largest media markets competing for viewership, readership and advertising dollars: New York and Philadelphia. If you do not live in New Jersey, you get your news - and image of what happens here - via television, radio and newspapers from two competing areas. And most certainly, the bad news gets the attention of the audiences better than the good news.
While I can spin that we are not so bad, we also have to face as much as 80 percent of the United States is less corrupt than we are, and that fact needs our attention. Tammany Hall-era power broker G. W. Plunkitt, a New York state senator, differentiated between honest and dishonest graft. Dishonest graft was blackmailing everyday working people. Honest graft was finding opportunities to make money and taking them. Today, both are unacceptable. Yet in New Jersey, we still insist on home rule that creates far too many layers of government and the lure and opportunity for "honest graft."
New Jersey houses 566 municipalities, 40 legislative districts, 21 county governments, and hundreds upon hundreds of state, county and local special-purpose governments. Special purpose governments include 605 school districts, as well as municipal and county utility authorities, fire protection and transportation, economic development and improvement authorities and districts. Most are easily recognizable and have the word "authority" or "district" in them. These special-purpose governments have taxing, bonding and purchasing authority outside the control of the municipality or county.
New Jersey has taken the concept of "big government" to new heights through all levels of government. There are just too many people involved in too many governmental and quasi-governmental bodies and stumbling on too many opportunities to make a quick dollar. To be sure, most people are involved as concerned citizens willing to take on extra duties as public service. However the number of those involved who are willing to seize money-making opportunities through land deals, purchasing contracts and outright payola is too large to accept.
Of equal concern is that most New Jerseyeans accept this culture. This is not a Democratic or Republican problem. It is our problem. To cure it will take more than jailing those who commit crimes. We have to change the way we govern ourselves. Below are ideas to be explored that require hard - sometimes unpopular - choices and radical thinking.
- Increase the boundaries of what we define as the area for home rule by merging towns, townships, villages and some cities. The elected officials should be full time with no conflicts from outside employment.
- Decrease 605 school districts to 21 county districts with full-time management. With the right makeup of administrators, rural, suburban and urban needs can be addressed.
- Many special-interest governments can be eliminated and moved back into the elected government body. Those that cannot need a new set of operating rules that make their actions accountable to the governing body. It is then the success of the total administration that becomes the decision you make at the polls as you vote.
- Make New Jersey's legislators full time with full-time work and unable to accept outside employment and honoraria. This reduces both the appearance and the reality of conflicts. They already receive the benefits of full-time employees, so this is a salary adjustment only. While it may increase costs in the short run, the savings in prosecutions is huge in both dollars and reputation.
And these ideas only represent cutting corruption. Examine them from other angles, and you will see the opportunities for cost-cutting in government and vitality in our economy and communities. Government corruption not only eats away at the public's confidence in our officials, it also damages the democratic processes we live by.
Sharon E. Schulman is executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.