In the part-time New Jersey Legislature, legislators are often involved in legislation directly related 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 to help businesses thrive.
Often these votes generate little controversy, especially if the bills pass with broad support. While vigilant watchdogs may voice concerns about conflicts of interest, lawmakers say their day-to-day jobs provide insider knowledge that helps them better shape potential policies.
But sometimes, public policies can generate financial windfalls. That’s why questions are swirling about whether two top lawmakers will benefit financially from a set of bills Governor Phil Murphy signed into law this month, particularly one that will increase minimum auto insurance coverage requirements. for drivers up to four times the previous minimum. Lawyers and insurance companies say the change will undoubtedly lead to higher insurance costs for consumers.
Senate Speaker Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Senator Jon Bramnick (R-Union), both personal injury attorneys, sponsored the bill, which passed in the final days of the budget session when hundreds of bills advanced. The men said it would protect drivers who opt for minimal insurance coverage by requiring increased financial assistance in the event of an accident. MP Beth Sawyer (R-Gloucester) said it ‘only helps lawyers get richer’.
The senators have previously denied any conflict of interest. In a recent phone interview, Scutari said the bill wouldn’t specifically enrich him, adding that he “barely” deals with insurance cases.
“There are a lot of lawyers in the Legislative Assembly, and some of them deal with insurance matters. Not just us, and I’m sure they voted on that,” he said. “I know it’s allowed because it’s not specifically about the things we do.”
The car insurance bill was one of the few that Scutari and Bramnick pushed. Other bills that have not been passed by the entire Legislature before the summer recess would require all auto insurance plans to include a minimum of $250,000 in personal injury protection – against the current minimum of $15,000 – and prevents drivers from using private health insurance coverage as the primary payer for bodily injury protection coverage.
Experts suggest that Scutari and Bramnick’s vocal support for the bill could be crossing questionable ethical territory. Scutari appeared at a Senate committee hearing on one of the bills in June to chastise the critics and say that “the people of New Jersey need this legislature to protect them from themselves.”
Kirk Johnson, a justice studies professor at Montclair State University, said lawmakers should recuse themselves from debates and vote on bills that could enrich themselves and the people around them.
“In a perfect world, yes, you should recuse yourself and you should report it. 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 that all manner of attorneys, from personal injury to defense attorneys, serve in the Legislative Assembly. The 120-member body has 27 practicing lawyers.
“There are teachers in the legislature who vote on issues involving teachers, representatives of the NJEA, there are people who are pro-environment who work in environmental legislation, you should ban everyone,” a he declared. “Most of the time, I will speak out on issues that favor the consumer over the insurance company. This is generally my penchant and I will continue to do so.
What are New Jersey’s ethics rules?
Although the guardrails put in place are not often used, the New Jersey Legislature has a Code of Ethics and a Legislative Ethics Committee to enforce it.
John Farmer, director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, pointed to passages in the code of ethics directing members not to act in a manner that “impairs objectivity or judgment” in public service. Lawmakers 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 whether a legislator personally benefits from the legislation. The committee last met in July 2021 and met six times during the 2018–19 legislative session.
The code of ethics also suggests that as long as a bill does not help a single legislator – or their family or business – but an entire profession, the committee can determine that there is no conflict of interest. interests, Farmer said. He declined to comment specifically on auto insurance legislation or the actions of either senator.
Johnson said New Jersey’s ethics rules clearly define when a lawmaker’s involvement with a bill becomes unethical.
For example, if a lawmaker who has a teacher’s pension wants to sponsor a bill allocating millions of dollars to the pension fund, that would be a clear conflict of interest, he said. But cost-of-living wage increases for school workers in light of inflation – which would help the entire sector – would be acceptable.
“It benefits a wide range of people rather than (the lawmaker) and the rest of the constituency as well,” he said. “If it clearly benefits you – and more importantly makes it worse for your constituents – that’s a huge red flag.”
Scutari said in a recent interview that the changes he wants to make to insurance policies will benefit all drivers and said his actions are no different than any other lawmaker.
“What about all the other lawyers in the Legislative Assembly who deal with car accident cases? What about all the dentists who take care of the dentists’ files? What about teachers dealing with the legislation that has been proposed on teachers? It’s been done a million times. There’s nothing to it,” Scutari said.
The Office of Legislative Services, the nonpartisan office that provides support services to the legislature, houses an ethics counselor to advise legislators and legislative aides. A spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Scutari said he spoke to the Office of Legislative Services and the ethics counselor “a million times” during his 19 years in the legislature.
criticism of the law
The insurance bills were passed largely along party lines, but critics voiced concerns before moving forward.
Most of the criticism, which also came from progressive advocates and insurance companies, focused on how the bill increasing mandatory coverage will weigh on low-income residents who are already struggling to pay for food, rent and utilities during a period of skyrocketing prices.
The invoicewhich Murphy signed into law earlier this month, increases the minimum amount of uninsured or underinsured motorist liability and coverage that auto insurance policies must have from $15,000 to anywhere between $25,000 and $70,000, depending on when the policy is renewed.
Murphy also signed two more into the package – a measure due to come into force in November demanding of business owners and landlords take out liability insurance in the event of death or bodily injury in rental properties and another requiring insurers to disclose policy limits at the request of a lawyer in certain circumstances, which will take effect in October.
Farmer pointed to the pros and cons of a part-time legislature, such as having members who are in the “real world” and can bring that expertise in a variety of areas to legislative judgments. This allows members to stay in touch with common constituent concerns, he said.
“However, it also creates the potential for conflicts, which are difficult to analyze and extremely fact-sensitive,” he said.
If it clearly benefits you — and mostly makes 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 did not want to comment specifically on the two senators, but said there was an “overarching problem of politicians knowingly proposing laws and policies that benefit them, and at the same time, hinder the people who elected them in the first place.
He added that the 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 about having a high level of awareness and being aware of that, from an ethical point of view, and trying to lead by example when it comes to ethics is extremely important,” he said. he declares.
In response, Scutari said he was “not close to ethical boundaries” and said he had “never voted on legislation that was specific to me, and I’m sure Senator Bramnick either. “.
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