A bill with a deceptive name, “The Election Transparency Act,” is up for a vote in the New Jersey Assembly and Senate on Monday, Feb. 23.
The bill would increase campaign contribution limits, end stricter local pay-to-play laws, and make the executive director of the state’s independent campaign finance watchdog, the Election Law Enforcement Commission, an appointee of the governor.
Those are just a few of the provisions of the bill that cleared two legislative committees on Feb. 23 in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly, with several Democrats abstaining and the Republicans voting no.
Assemblyman Brian Bergen has dubbed the bill the “Public Corruption Authorization Act,” arguing it will undo protections that have been put in place over the past two decades to limit pay-to-play corruption. Several good government groups oppose the bill.
State Senate and Assembly candidates representing District 16, which includes Princeton, voiced their support for the bill at the Princeton Community Democratic Organization’s endorsement meeting on Thursday, with Sen. Andrew Zwicker arguing the bill is good because it would standardize regulations across the state. He did not mention the increase in campaign contribution limits or other parts of the bill that are controversial. The bill has also been an issue in the race for Mercer County Executive, with County Executive Brian Hughes opposing the bill and noting his opponent Dan Benson’s support of the bill in the Assembly.
Raising campaign contribution limits
The bill would double the amount of money individuals or groups could give to non-gubernatorial candidates, parties, and county party organizations. Contributions to candidates would go from $2,600 to $5,200 in a given election cycle. Contributions to political committees would double to $14,400.
The state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission would be given the ability to adjust contribution limits for all election campaigns, except the governor’s race, every two years.
Legislators who support the bill argue that the changes will level the playing field for candidates who are not self-funded or backed by independent expenditure groups. They also point out that the campaign limits have not been increased for 18 years. But good government groups argue that the changes will gut pay-to-play reforms, and argue that the answer to the problem of money in politics isn’t allowing more money to flow. They also note that bigger donors would be able to contribute an even greater amount to a candidate’s fundraising total, increasing the political system’s dependence on the wealthiest donors.
State and county political parties would also be allowed to create “housekeeping accounts” to pay for expenses like legal fees, accounting, and rent. These funds would be able to take donations twice the size of regular campaign donations. The League of Women Voters has called these accounts slush funds.
Lowering dollar reporting amounts for certain contributions
Included among all the new regulations that weaken campaign finance reform are a few requirements that actually strengthen campaign finance transparency in a few areas. Some campaign donations are reported at lower dollar amounts than the current threshold. The bill would require 501(c)4 organizations and political action committees to disclose any contributions greater than $7,500 instead of the current $10,000. Campaigns would also have to report all their expenditures, not just the current law that requires campaigns to report expenditures over $3,000. The requirements do not cover 501(c)(6) organizations, which are corporate and trade organizations that donate to campaigns.
Campaigns would only have to report individual donor contributions in excess of $200.
In the last 11 days of a race leading up to election day, a campaign would have to report contributions of $1,900 or more within 24 hours, instead of the current 48 hours.
The version of the bill introduced last summer would have also required donations of $2,000 or more to be reported within 96 hours, instead of just in quarterly reports. That provision has been stripped out, in spite of objections by advocates for transparency.
The bill would lower the threshold for barring contractors from being eligible for no-bid government contracts from $300 to $200 per campaign. Yet it would create a giant loophole in current pay-to-play restrictions by allowing political party organizations to accept donations from contractors. If a contract is awarded through an open bidding process, then campaign contributions by the winner of that contract would be allowed.
Contributions to party organizations would be exempt from the pay-to-play law, something advocates warn would invite abuse and result in more money being funneled from government contractors to candidates via political party machines.
Local and county pay-to-play laws would be voided
Local governments have passed their own pay-to-play rules for the past two decades that restrict people who do business with the municipality or county from donating to local or county candidates. Some municipalities ban contractors who want to do business with their towns from making any contributions to local campaigns. Under the bill, local ordinances would be repealed and the state would replace them with state regulations.
Consolidating the power of the governor
A provision added to the bill last week would give the governor the power to appoint the executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission. The executive director currently is appointed by a bipartisan commission. But the change would remove any checks and balances between the governor and the agency, in spite of the fact that governors are also candidates for office. The Election Law Enforcement Commission is responsible for monitoring gubernatorial campaign finance reports and managing the matching funds for those campaigns.
The bill would also create a two-year statute of limitations for the Election Law Enforcement Commission to enforce campaign violations. It isn’t clear how the commission would be able to enforce rules in that time frame. The bill does not provide funding for more staff members to review possible violations in a timely manner. Candidates could therefore violate regulations without much risk of enforcement.
Increasing public funding for gubernatorial campaigns
Qualified candidates for governor and lieutenant governor could receive up to $10,5 million in public funding for the general election.
A full list of legislators in New Jersey with emails is available online in case readers want to reach out to voice their opinions about the bill.