The line between campaigning and legislating can get blurry in New Jersey

New Jersey state Sen. James Beach (D-Camden), acknowledges that his posts as state senator and as co-chair of the Camden County Democratic Committee are both big duties.And one of the major tasks for both jobs is keeping them separate. Beach said that also goes for his Camden County Democratic co-chair, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J.

“That’s something I’m always very cognizant of,” Beach said. “Keeping my responsibilities as state senator different from my political responsibilities as co-chairman.”

One of the cardinal rules in modern-day politics is that a clear wall is supposed to exist between taxpayer funds spend on government operations, and donor funds spent on campaigning. The legal rationale is that taxpayers shouldn’t be obliged to fund public officials’ re-election campaigns.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, state officials were charged in 2009 with using taxpayer-funded resources for political campaigns. In the years after that, it became common practice for some Pennsylvania lawmakers to abruptly switch to other phones or step out of their offices should a conversation’s subject suddenly switch to from public policy to political campaigns, in order to avoid any appearance of improperly using taxpayer-funded resources.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the federal government is very strict about that kind of thing for U.S. senators and Congressional representatives. But it’s not as rigidly enforced in the New Jersey state government.”The line between campaigning and legislating is extremely blurred,” Murray said. “It’s hard sometimes to tell one from the other when you’re talking to a constituent who’s also a political contributor.”

Murray said the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, a joint legislative executive committee, is usually the arbiter in cases where there’s a question of possibly crossing a line. If you’re a state senator or representative, running a campaign out of your office would be a no-no-no, Murray said. “Although if you’re talking to a state legislator about their campaign in their office, that wouldn’t be as much of a violation,” Murray said. “That’s just seen as the normal course of business.”

Murray said he’s aware of a situation where a lawmaker listed a legislative address on a campaign Website, apparently as a mistake. The state informed the lawmaker and the address was changed. “We haven’t had any situation where there was some clear, major use of resources for campaign purposes,” Murray said.

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This post is part of our South Jersey Politics Blog

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