In New Jersey, local lobbying goes undisclosed

By: - August 17, 2021 6:57 am

Officials at the Election Law Enforcement Commission have pushed for more lobbying disclosure at the local level for roughly a decade. (Photo by Mary Iuvone for the New Jersey Monitor)

Municipal officials in towns across New Jersey are facing a press of lobbying over local marijuana rules, but those influence efforts will largely go undisclosed.

New Jersey’s lobbying regulations only cover influence at the state level and toward the general public. Lobbying targeting smaller units of government, like those that exist on the local and county level, aren’t required to be revealed by the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

“There is no disclosure,” said Al Barlas, a senior vice president at Mercury Public Affairs, one of New Jersey’s largest lobbying and firms. “The only thing that requires disclosure to ELEC by ELEC is if you are lobbying before a legislator or a state agency or a department or the governor’s office.”

Clinton Town Mayor Janice Kovach, who is also president of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said local lobbying is widespread, with much of the recent focus lent to local rules on the sale and cultivation of marijuana.

A lobbyist reached out to Clinton officials shortly after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law expanding the state’s medical marijuana programs, though their proposal for a pot facility in the Hunterdon County town was ultimately defeated by local opposition.

Other lobbyists have reached out since, though they number fewer than they might elsewhere.

“Because the town has opted out, no one has pushed hard,” Kovach said.

There’s no clear indication of how much money is put behind lobbying on local issues, though officials suspect the sums are considerable, though it is likely less than the $105 million spent lobbying state officials last year.

“I think it’s certainly substantial enough to have the law changed and require this kind of lobbying to be disclosed,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said.

ELEC has pushed for more disclosure at the local level for roughly a decade. Those efforts have met with little success.

A 2014 bill would have required lobbyists working on behalf of local governments — as they might when a town wishes to stop a proposal at the state level — report their work, but that bill cleared the Senate in a broadly bipartisan vote but never made it to the Assembly floor. Either way, it would not have compelled lobbyists to disclose work done to influence local officials.

Lawmakers have not attempted since to broaden state oversight into lobbying at more local levels of government.

The lobbying rules are a departure from how the ELEC enforces other regulations on smaller governments. Counties and municipalities are subject to the state’s pay-to-play laws, though they can enact their own versions, and candidates for county and municipal office must report campaign fundraising just like legislative candidates do.

The disconnect dates back to the 1980s, when New Jersey’s lobbying law was enacted. At the time, local lobbying was less widespread, and likely less moneyed, Brindle said.

But the practice gained relevance as focus on development grew and the prominence of professional services contracts ballooned along with local budgets.

“Lobbying has become much more sophisticated — a lot more tools in the toolbox, so to speak,” Brindle said. “This is just a natural development that occurred over time.”

Local governments are not keeping up.

Many of New Jersey’s local elected officials serve on a part-time basis, often with little experience in government — or with lobbyists.

“Sometimes they don’t even understand they’ve being lobbied,” Kovach said. “It’s a local person: ‘Oh listen, I’m local, and I’ve got this client’ all of a sudden you realize what’s happening.”

Barlas said he and his colleagues would not resist greater disclosure requirements though it’s not clear whether that willingness extends to lobbyists statewide.

“If you said, ‘fill it out on a report,’ we would all fill it out,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that would shy away from taking clients that have municipal or county needs just because you have to fill out an ELEC report.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.