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Bird's-eye view of N.J. shows a corrupt landscape

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The story of Birdsall's dramatic collapse is one that's going to stick with New Jersey's business owners for a long time.

The good news: The state has taken action against executives with the bankrupted Monmouth County engineering firm who were behind the pay-to-play scandal, and for competitors, there's an opportunity to be had as governments look to different players to provide services.

The bad news, of course, is that while the great majority of business owners throughout the state are honest, they now get to share in the perception that the state is hopelessly corrupt, and that contracts are handed out not for the best bids, but the best boodle.

The idea that secret donations are a requirement to effectively do business isn't a uniquely New Jersey problem, but for whatever reason, those scandals seem to stick here more stubbornly than elsewhere. And especially when the economic chips are down — or at least very slow to get up — it's hard for an honest business owner to wonder if the company can succeed without turning to bribes.

The business with Birdsall isn't anything on the scale of the infamous Operation Bid Rig, the 2009 federal public corruption probe that landed a host of politicians in jail for taking bribes in order to speed through development projects. But when NJBIZ asked lawmakers about the cost of corruption on New Jersey's business climate, Leonard Lance called it a $1 billion-a-year hurdle the Garden State sometimes seems no closer to clearing. That price tag isn't money changing hands; rather, it's lost savings from rigged bidding, lost tax revenues from companies that stay away for fear of getting their hands dirty and a host of other factors.

If we had a robust business climate that was outperforming the rest of the nation, this wouldn't sting as badly as it does. But the Garden State has plenty of problems in trying to attract businesses and improve its economy, particularly against the well-rehearsed backdrop of high taxes. It can't effectively turn around its image when it has renegade companies rigging the system the way Birdsall is accused of doing. The state simply has to be better about preventing these kinds of shenanigans and effectively punishing those who do wrong.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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