The latest revisions to the ‘Election Transparency Act don’t improve a bill that is fundamentally flawed

State legislators and the governor must think their constituents are extremely gullible.

After the outcry from the public and good government groups last month about the so-called ““Election Transparency Act”, revisions were made to the bill that really don’t change the impact of the legislation much. Apparently, legislators in Trenton hope you won’t notice and they think that the amendments give the appearance that they have heard you. Or maybe they just hope constituents won’t notice and have moved on to another issue.

The bill is fundamentally flawed. There is no other way to put it. That is the main issue. A better name for the bill would be the Election Obfuscation Act.

Changes made to the bill last week do almost nothing to increase transparency. A provision that would have given the governor the power to hire and fire the head of the state agency that oversees campaign finance law was removed. Instead, the governor would be able to appoint the commissioners who oversee the agency and have the power to hire and fire the head of the agency. That still gives the governor control over what is supposed to be an independent watchdog agency.

If approved by the state legislature on Monday, March 20, and signed by the governor, the act would do away with state pay-to-play contribution limits and eliminate local pay-to-play reform laws. 

The main purpose of pay-to-play laws is to cut the ties between political contributions and government contracts. Without such protections, the public pays more for projects. In the pay-to-play system, contractors make donations to political campaigns. Politicians steer as much government work to their largest campaign contributors as possible. The contractors, of course, factor the cost of making political contributions into their pricing. Civic groups once estimated that contracting costs were at least 10 percent too high because of political contributions being built into bids.

The public is the loser in such a pay-to-play system in a state where taxpayers already pay some of the highest taxes in the nation.

That’s one of the reasons not a single good government group in the state supports the legislation.

Good government groups did not support it last year, they did not support in February, and they don’t support it now.

Policy experts and nonpartisan groups, including the League of Women Voters, have said the legislation would gut pay-to-play reform as we know it and set the state back two decades. 

New Jersey was once notorious for its pay-to-play system that awarded contracts to firms that made large donations to political parties. Grassroots efforts led by The Citizens Campaign spurred reform, town by town.

The state legislature resisted enacting its own reforms because politicians at the state level relied on contractors’ donations to fund their campaigns. One of Gov. James McGreevey’s accomplishments was an executive order his successor, Governor Richard Codey, was able to make a state law, called the Prohibition on Business Entity Contributions. The achievement was accomplished through the persistence of The Citizens Campaign and public pressure placed on legislators. It was one of the strongest anti-pay-to-play laws in the country and became a model for other states. 

In an opinion piece for NJ Spotlight last summer, Citizens Campaign founder Harry Pozycki pointed out problems with the legislation and also noted how bad the timing is due to the adoption of the large-scale federal infrastructure package last year that means billions of dollars will flow into the state government for infrastructure upgrades.

The best thing that could happen to this bill would be that it is scraped altogether. Let’s hope elected officials put good government and the interests of residents, or at least pressure from those residents, ahead of building up their campaign coffers on Monday and the bill is voted down. As Pozycki noted in his editorial for NJ Spotlight, returning to the old days of trading political contributions for lucrative government contracts would lead to a waste of tax dollars that New Jersey residents can’t afford.

The Senate and Assembly should kill the bill for good instead of making minor amendments to a flawed piece of legislation.