Legislature slated to vote (again) today on the so-called ‘Elections Transparency Act’

The bill that has become famous for its deceptive name, “The Election Transparency Act,” is up for a vote again in the New Jersey Assembly and Senate today, March 20.

The bill would increase campaign contribution limits and end stricter local pay-to-play laws. The main change in the revised bill is that the executive director of the state’s independent campaign finance watchdog, the Election Law Enforcement Commission, will not be an appointee of the governor. Instead, the new version of the bill would allow the governor to temporarily appoint ELEC commissioners without approval from the state Senate. In other words, the legislation would still pave the way for the governor to pick who leads the state agency that oversees and enforces New Jersey’s campaign finance laws.

The bill was tabled last month after an outcry from the public. Legislators who felt the pressure from their constituents said they wouldn’t support the bill because of the last-minute amendments. But then they turned around and crafted another version of the bill with almost all of the same measures included in it, measures that undo more than two decades of finance reform, and still essentially give the governor control of the state agency that oversees campaign finance law.

Following are the provisions of the bill that good government groups say make the bill flawed altogether.

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. The legislature has revised the bill to lower the amount that can be donated to these 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.

Contractor loopholes

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.

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 for readers who want to reach out to voice their opinions about the bill.