Why New York's Legislature Is Worse Than New Jersey's?

Both New Jersey and New York legislators have been involved in plenty of corruption scandals. But does Trenton's part-time political culture, or lack of culture, give it an edge?
by | July 9, 2010

I received an interesting comment in response to something I wrote last week about the relative demerits of the New York and New Jersey legislatures -- two legislatures that both have lousy reputations. First, for context, here's the remark from New Jersey State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff (who used to work in the Pataki administration) in my original post:

In my personal dealings with the legislature, I have been pleased and gratified by the professionalism of the interaction – the sense that although there may be at times bitter disagreement over policy and policy priorities there is at the end of the day a commitment to getting the job done, to governing and to delivering government for the people of New Jersey.

The reason I kind of focus in on that is that was woefully lacking in my previous experience. In New York State, it’s almost as if nobody cares anymore. And here, quite gratifyingly, people feel an obligation to govern and an obligation to the process.

Now, here's the comment:

As a former state lobbyist that worked extensively in both Trenton and Albany, one of the reasons the legislature in NJ may be - -or at least appear to be -- more professional and concilliatory lies in several reasons: 1) As a "drive in", part time body, there's no institutional "Trenton" culture and life, that tends to reinforce political thinking. NJ lawmakers are more "real people" leading real lives 2) It doesn't matter which party or persons are in control: all NY decisions are made by "3 men in a room". Until that changes, NY will never reform itself. 3) As a small state (with a small state complex) lawmakers recognize their decisions have impact on their neighbors. NY is so big, so diverse, upstate/downstate and even the intra-borough fights -- each is its own country. PS For these reasons, I don't miss it!

Perhaps you could quibble that New Jersey is a fairly large state and one with a pretty big cultural divide of its own: between North Jersey and South Jersey. Nonetheless, I think this is a pretty interesting idea.

I've often thought that part-time legislatures were especially susceptible to corruption. Part-time legislators are paid like part-time workers. They usually have to have other jobs, which can come with all sorts of ethical complications. A few years ago, as I recall, there was a Nevada legislator who also was a lobbyist. Alabama legislators have gotten in trouble for the jobs that had in the community college system, where they were accused of getting paid for work they hadn't done.

But, there's definitely some truth to this assessment of Trenton. When I was reporting my story about Chris Christie (for the August issue of Governing!), none of the state legislators wanted to meet with me in Trenton. They weren't there. That was especially striking because it was just a couple of weeks before the budget was due.

New Jersey has proved that there still can be plenty of corruption in that sort of system. But, I suppose it is harder to have a culture of corruption when there isn't much of a culture at all.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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