Conflict of Interest?

New Jersey is one of only three states in the nation where state legislators can simultaneously serve as local elected officials—one possible explanation for why the Garden State has struggled to enact meaningful eminent domain reform in the wake of Kelo, according to a study released by the New Jersey Policy Perspective. Federal office holders are prohibited from holding another elected position while serving and 36 states have explicit legal bans on the practice known as “double-dipping.”[1]

The report (titled “One to a Customer: The Democratic Downsides of Dual Office Holding”) revealed that, of the 120 state lawmakers in New Jersey, 20 hold another elected office—not including appointed, tax-paid positions held by more than 20 others.[2] When it comes to eminent domain reform, it is particularly remarkable that one-third (4 of 12) of the legislators currently serving on two committees considering eminent domain reform are mayors.[3] In fact, Assemblyman John Burzichelli is the mayor of Paulsboro and State Sen. Ronald Rice is a current Newark councilman and former deputy mayor. They are the two legislators sponsoring recent legislation that purports to stop the abuse of eminent domain without actually accomplishing that objective.

Since Kelo, every public opinion poll has revealed that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the abuse of eminent domain. Typically, the only people lobbying to protect eminent domain for private use are local officials, planners and developers—the same people who stand to gain from the practice.

Eminent domain “is affected by dual office holding,” said Tom O’Neil, who authored the report.[4]

The abuse of eminent domain in New Jersey is well-acknowledged and recognized, but as is the case in many states across the nation, legislative efforts to reform condemnation laws have met with resistance from the influential minority fighting to protect its power. This obstacle is only exacerbated when the same state legislators burdened with the task of limiting what municipal officials can do are also the politicians holding the highest local offices. Essentially, they are in a position to curb their own power—and that is less likely to occur, according to the study.[5]

Since Kelo, legislators in 47 states have introduced, considered or passed eminent domain reform, and more than half the governors have signed legislation into law. If New Jersey is serious about doing what the U.S. Supreme Court failed to do in Kelo—stopping the abuse of eminent domain—it’s time legislators set aside their personal agendas and respond to the demands of their constituents with meaningful reform—even when it means limiting their own municipal powers.

[1] “Advocates demanding end to double-dipping,” The Star Ledger, June 16, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gregory J. Volpe, “Report cites conflict of holding 2 offices,” Gannett State Bureau, June 16, 2006.

[4] Gregory J. Volpe, “Citing eminent-domain conflict, report urges ban on dual-office legislators,” Gannett State Bureau, June 16, 2006.

[5] “Advocates demanding end to double-dipping,” The Star Ledger, June 16, 2006.