The bill is intended to lessen the influence of so-called dark money groups and increase transparency in campaign finance reporting. (Getty Images)
A Senate panel advanced a measure Thursday aimed at retooling the state’s campaign finance system by doubling most contribution limits and requiring more regular reporting, despite objections from voting advocates.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee unanimously cleared the bill, which is sponsored by Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), though some members echoed advocates’ concerns about increasing donor limits, many of which have remained level since 2005.
Sen. Shirley Turner expressed worry the changes would further whittle the influence of small-dollar donors.
“I think there’s too much money in campaigns as it is. This means we’re going to have more negative money to spend in a campaign, and it doesn’t really get down to the heart of the matter — and that is the individual contributors will be closed out in terms of campaigns,” said Turner (D-Mercer).
Turner, who said she backs the stricter disclosure rules for independent expenditure groups the bill would implement, voted to advance the bill but she said she might oppose it if it comes to a vote on the Senate floor.
The bill in ways resembles a proposal Scutari made before ascending the ranks of Senate leadership, though it is more constrained. His previous proposal would have removed all contribution limits and required all donations more than $200 to be reported within 72 hours.
The measure would increase the amount of money individuals, corporations, unions, associations, and similar groups can give to candidates from $2,600 to $5,200 per election cycle. Limits for contributions to candidates in candidate, political, and continuing political committees would also double to $14,400 per cycle.
Primary and general elections are considered separate cycles for the purpose of campaign contributions under New Jersey law, so a donor would be able to give $5,200 to a primary candidate and then another $5,200 to that candidate’s general election campaign.
The bill would allow legislative leadership PACs and state parties to give up to $50,000 annually, while county parties would be able to donate up to $74,000 per year.
The League of Women Voters of New Jersey, represented at Thursday’s hearing by Sandra Matsen, opposes the bill.
“There’s nothing strategic or targeted with those changes, and the league maintains there’s more than enough money in the system now,” Matsen said.
The measure would also require the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission to annually adjust limits on contributions to all types of candidates. Existing law only indexes contribution limits for gubernatorial candidates.
Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s director, supports those changes. The increases would update the state’s contribution limits to account for 18 years of inflation, he said, noting total campaign costs — including advertising rates — have jumped by about 80% since 2005.
“With the current high rate of inflation, the way they increased the contribution limits seems to be right on target,” he told the New Jersey Monitor.
The increased limits may also help the state achieve the Election Law Enforcement Commission’s long-stated goal of cutting down the influence of independent expenditure groups that are not subject to contribution or disclosure limits imposed upon candidates and parties.
Spending from such groups has surged in the 12 years since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed certain independent expenditure groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money influencing campaigns.
As spending from such groups soared, less money went to the state’s political parties. Unlike super PACs, social welfare nonprofits, and other independent expenditure groups, party organizations are subject to strict campaign finance disclosure requirements.
The bill would exempt contributions made to political parties and legislative leadership committees from the list of those that could keep a firm from winning public contracts. Matsen said she worries this change would effectively gut New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws and make them “almost meaningless.”
Rolling reporting and shining light on dark money
Amendments made to the bill Thursday would require candidates and their committees to report contributions of $2,000 or more within 96 hours of their receipt. The bill contains similar rolling reporting provisions for political parties.
Under existing law, most contributions are only reported quarterly. The exception comes in the last 13 days of an election, when all candidates and committees must report within 48 hours their donations from sources that have given more than $1,900 overall.
The bill would also reduce reporting thresholds for contributions and expenditures made to or by independent expenditure groups, which are sometimes referred to as dark money groups. The bill would require they report donations and expenditures worth more than $1,000, down from $10,000 and $3,000, respectively.
Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic) questioned whether the changes would do much to limit the role outside groups play in modern elections, but said the system would work better “when everybody knows where every dollar is coming from.”
“They’re going to find ways around every finance reform you do, so I think transparency is the key,” Polistina said.
The committee on Thursday also advanced a series of bipartisan voting reform bills championed by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), including one that would allow election officials to begin counting mail-in ballots before Election Day.
In a win for voting advocates, the committee amended the bill, removing provisions that would have cut New Jersey’s six-day grace period for late-arriving mail-in ballots to four days.
Over the objections of the state NAACP and more than a dozen Black leaders and other advocates, lawmakers also approved a bill partially rolling back a recent law that barred police officers from polling places.
The bill would require police to be stationed at polling places upon a request from public schools and senior citizen homes doubling as polling places, a provision advocates said they fear could intimidate voters, especially given another recent law that extended suffrage to individuals on parole or probation.
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