Bill to revamp campaign finance laws clears Assembly hurdle
Assemblyman Brian Bergen voted against the bill, arguing a provision that would lower the threshold for publicly reported political donations would scare off small donors. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
An Assembly panel on Monday approved a new version of a bill that would revamp campaign finance laws supporters say are outdated, but critics warned the changes could shield corruption and increase the influence of wealthy contributors.
Other portions of the bill, including a requirement to report contributions from high-dollar donors within 96 hours, were left on the cutting room floor over concerns about feasibility, a major blow for good-government advocates who supported them. The bill’s sponsor, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), said lawmakers need to discuss the rolling reporting provisions more.
“How we were going to manage that, how it would be constructed, was something I think we want to talk about more,” Greenwald said.
While the bill would eliminate rolling reporting for donors giving $2,000 or more total to a campaign, it would bolster a reporting requirement that comes into effect in the final days of a campaign.
Current law requires candidates to report contributions from donors who have given $1,900 or more within 48 hours during the final 11 days of a campaign. The bill would require such contributions to be reported to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, which is backing the reforms, within 24 hours.
The revised bill advanced Monday would also lower the threshold at which 501(c)4 nonprofits and PACs must report contributions from $10,000 to $7,500 and would require such groups report all expenditures. Existing law only requires the disclosure of outside spending above $3,000.
In 2021, qualified candidates could receive up to $10.5 million in public funds during the general election, though that number shifts from cycle to cycle.
Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris), the only member to vote against the bill Monday, said he worries its proposed change on publicly reported donations would turn some residents away from political giving.
Current law requires campaigns to list a donor’s name and address, alongside some other information, on campaign finance filings if that donor has given a total of $300 or more to a campaign, making them more likely to face solicitations for funds or receive election mailers from other campaigns. The bill would reduce that threshold to $200.
“They don’t want to end up with additional mail they don’t need or phone calls they don’t need,” Bergen said. “I thought $300 was a pretty fair limit, and that’s what everybody’s accustomed to. To move it down to $200 would limit those people’s ability to support us.”
Greenwald noted donor information was disclosed for contributions as low as $5 under the defunct Fair and Clean Elections Law more than a decade ago.
“I think we’re all very sensitive to our donors and how they’re treated, but I think there’s this balance, though, between people being a part of the process and the transparency around it,” he said.
The bill would also lower the threshold at which firms can be barred from holding public contracts. New Jersey’s pay-to-play law bars contractors who give $300 or more to a candidate or political party from winning no-bid contracts in that jurisdiction. The bill would lower that threshold to $200.
It would also exempt contributions to party organizations from the pay-to-play law, something advocates warn would invite abuse given that the legislation would also bar towns and counties from enacting their own pay-to-play ordinances.
“Any local government that wanted to close a loophole wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so, and that is concerning,” said Philip Hensley, a democracy policy analyst for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “This bill, at least as drafted, creates a new loophole by allowing businesses covered by the existing pay-to-play laws to now give contributions through a local party committee.”
Lawmakers aren’t expected to approve the bill before the start of the new year, though Greenwald said he intends for the new rules to be in effect for legislative elections in 2023. The primaries for those races are in June.
Assemblymen Jay Webber, Tom Giblin, and Antwan McLellan were the three who abstained from voting on the bill.
An earlier version of this story misstated reporting requirements for certain nonprofits and PACs.
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