New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s campaign finance laws on Thursday, sending the measure to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.
The measure, called the Elections Transparency Act — a name opponents say it falls far short of — makes a host of changes, including increasing spending and contribution limits, overhauling pay-to-play laws and shortening how long the state’s election watchdog commission can investigate campaign finance violations.
The bill’s sponsors claim that the changes are overdue and much needed, and also contain real transparency provisions, such as a requirement that groups like super political action committees and other organizations that contribute report their contributions to the state watchdog and a decrease in the threshold at which reporting is necessary from $10,000 to $7,500.
Among the changes the proposed bill would make are increasing spending limits in a primary for governor to $7.3 million from $2.2 million, and to $15.6 million from $5 million in the general election, as well as boosting the limit on individual contributions to candidates and parties from $2,600 to $5,200. It also retroactively shortens the statute of limitations for the state’s campaign finance watchdog — the Election Law Enforcement Commission — to investigate violations from 10 years to two years, temporarily permits the governor to make appointments to the commission without Senate approval and ends individual towns’ pay-to-play laws.
The bill would also remove a current prohibition against public contractors donating to state and party committees and permit state and committee party committees to maintain a ‘housekeeping’ account to pay for non-political expenses.
On the Assembly floor on Thursday, Democratic Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Republican Assembly member Brian Bergen clashed on the floor over the measure.
Bergen, an opponent of the legislation, questioned why the measure increased caps on contributions. Greenwald, the bill’s sponsor, answered that the aim of the legislation was requiring more disclosure, since so-called dark money groups don’t disclose their donors.
‘It’s not the point of the bill, but it’s part of the bill,’ Bergen said. ‘It allows people to buy influence.’
Greenwald responded that the legislation would check corruption because it requires disclosure.
‘It’s not the amount of money that you can contribute that leads to corruption,’ Greenwald said.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari was the only member to speak in favor of the bill last week when the measure passed in that chamber, with bipartisan votes both for and against.
The Democrat said the bill would create a far better system than what’s currently in place. He pointed to a campaign finance violation from 2016 that just recently resulted in a five-figure fine, as the reason for retroactively eliminating the 10-year statute of limitations.
‘Where is the deterrence in that fine? Why should we allow them to go after people after they’re out of office?’ Scutari said. ‘How would you like to get a traffic ticket two years after you went through (a red light)?’
Opponents of the bill said it falls short of its name.
Democratic state Sen. Nia Gill said the measure expands the influence of money in politics. Republican state Sen. Anthony Bucco said the measure hampers the commission’s ability to prosecute violations of campaign finance laws.
‘This bill has become simply a bad bill with a nice name,’ Bucco said.
Among the worst loopholes contained in the bill, according to critics, is the expansion of pay-to-play laws — rules aimed at limiting what companies that hold public contracts can contribute to political campaigns.
The bill would allow recipients of state government contracts to contribute to candidates for governor if they’re awarded through the ‘fair and open process.’ The bill says that the public entity awarding the contract determines what amounts to ‘fair and open.’
‘New Jerseyans would be left asking if future state government contracts would be awarded to the lowest qualified bidder, or to the next Governor’s biggest donors,’ said Philp Hensley, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey’s democracy policy analyst.
The bill was first introduced last summer, but it didn’t begin moving through the Legislature until earlier this year. It coincides with a controversy involving the watchdog commission’s executive director and Murphy. The director, Jeffrey Brindle, filed a lawsuit recently in which he alleges that Murphy’s staff called him to a meeting last November and asked him to resign. They cited ‘anti-gay’ emails they said Brindle sent. He’s denied the emails show bias and said he was being coerced to resign.
An earlier draft of the legislation would have allowed Murphy to unilaterally fire Brindle, but the latest version posted on the Legislature’s website would temporarily permit Murphy to name the commission’s four commissioners, who’d oversee the executive director.
Murphy’s spokesperson declined to comment.
If approved, the prospective law’s campaign contribution and expenditure limits wouldn’t make New Jersey much of an outlier compared to other states. Some have unlimited levels, while others have far lower limits compared to New Jersey’s prospective changes.