The Democratic-led New Jersey Legislature on Thursday passed a major overhaul of the state’s campaign finance laws, sending the measure to the desk of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
The measure, dubbed the Elections Transparency Act — a name opponents say falls far short of expectations — will see a raft of changes including raising spending and contribution limits, revising pay-to-play laws and shortening them the length of time the State Elections Commission is investigating violations of campaign finance.
Proponents of the bill claim the changes are overdue and badly needed, and also include genuine transparency provisions, such as what reporting is required from $10,000 to $7,500.
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Among the changes the proposed bill would make are raising spending limits in a gubernatorial primary from $2.2 million to $7.3 million and from $5 million to $15.6 million dollars in the general election, and raising the limit for individual contributions to candidates and parties from $2,600 to $5,200. It also retroactively cuts the statute of limitations on the state’s campaign finance oversight — the Election Law Enforcement Commission — to investigate violations from 10 years to two years, temporarily allows the governor to make appointments to the commission without Senate approval, and ends pay individual city-to-play laws.
The bill would also remove a current ban on public contractors from donating to state and party committees and allow state and party party committees to maintain a “housekeeping account” to pay for non-political expenses.
On the floor of the assembly Thursday, Democratic Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Republican Assemblyman Brian Bergen clashed over the action on the floor.
Bergen, an opponent of the legislation, questioned why the measure raised contribution caps. Greenwald, the sponsor of the bill, responded that the goal of the legislation is to require more disclosure, since so-called dark money groups do not disclose their donors.
“That’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 legislation would control corruption because it requires disclosure.
“It’s not the amount of money you can contribute that leads to corruption,” Greenwald said.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari was the only member to support the bill last week when the measure passed in this chamber with bipartisan votes both in favor and against.
The Democrat said the bill would create a far better system than what is currently in place. As a reason for the retrospective lifting of the 10-year statute of limitations, he referred to a violation of campaign finance from 2016, which recently led to a five-digit fine.
“Where is the deterrence in this fine? Why should we allow them to stalk people after they’re out of office?” said Scutari. “How would you like to get a speeding ticket two years after driving through (a red light)?”
Opponents of the bill said it didn’t live up to its name.
Democratic State Senator Nia Gill said the measure expands the influence of money in politics. Republican Senator Anthony Bucco said the measure would affect the commission’s ability to prosecute violations of campaign finance laws.
“This bill just turned out to be a bad bill with a nice name,” Bucco said.
Among the bill’s worst loopholes, critics say, is an expansion of pay-to-play laws — rules aimed at limiting what public-sector companies can contribute to political campaigns.
The bill would allow state treaty recipients to contribute to gubernatorial nominees if they are awarded through the “fair and open process.” The bill states that the public body awarding the contract will determine what “fair and open” means.
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“New Jersey residents would question whether future state government contracts would be awarded to the lowest qualified bidder or to the next governor’s biggest donors,” said Philp Hensley, democracy policy analyst for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.
The bill was first introduced last summer, but it didn’t start moving through the legislature until earlier this year. It coincides with a controversy involving the executive director of the supervisory commission and Murphy. The director, Jeffrey Brindle, recently filed a lawsuit alleging Murphy’s staff called him to a meeting last November and asked him to resign. They cited “anti-gay” emails Brindle allegedly sent. He has denied the emails show bias and said he was being forced to resign.
An earlier bill would have allowed Murphy to unilaterally fire Brindle, but the latest version, posted to the Legislature’s website, would temporarily allow Murphy to name the commission’s four commissioners who would oversee the executive director.
Murphy’s spokesman declined to comment.
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If approved, the future law’s campaign contribution and spending limits would not make New Jersey a major outlier compared to other states. Some have unlimited levels, while others have far lower limits compared to what New Jersey is likely to change.
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