A bill raising contribution limits, limiting campaign finance probes, and overhauling the election watchdog was approved in tight votes. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
Lawmakers in both chambers approved a bill Thursday making sweeping reforms to the state’s campaign finance system over the objections of advocates who warned the changes would weaken oversight and do little to make the system more transparent.
The bill, which cleared the Senate in a 21-12 vote and the Assembly 42-30, would drastically raise limits on political giving, require some additional disclosure from independent expenditure groups, and cut the time the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission has to investigate violators by 80%, among other things.
All three of ELEC’s commissioners, Eric Jaso, Stephen Holden, and Marguerite Simon, resigned in protest over the legislation shortly after both chambers approved the bill Thursday. They charged the bill would trample ELEC’s independence while removing its ability to penalize violators of campaign finance law.
Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign the measure.
“There’s a lot in this bill, and almost all of it is bad,” said Philip Hensley, democracy policy analyst for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.
Current caps on donations to candidates from individuals, unions, and some other groups would rise under the bill to $5,200, from $2,600. The limit on donations between candidates or from certain political committees would also double, to $14,400.
County and state party organizations, along with committees run by legislative leaders, would see the largest increases to their contribution caps, with those limits rising to $75,000 — triple the current limit on donations to state parties and leadership committees.
“If this bill passes, the biggest donors, the biggest business interests are going to have even more control over what is going on in our daily lives. This is the opposite of what democracy is,” said Arati Kreibich, director of democracy organizing at the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
The bill’s supporters say the proposed increases in donation limits are partly meant to combat the rise independent expenditure groups have made since Citizen’s United, the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred limits on how much some of these groups could spend to influence races.
Such groups face lax disclosure requirements, and those rules would remain weaker than those imposed on party organizations and candidates even after being strengthened by the bill.
The measure would require such groups to disclose donors who give at least $7,500 if their donations were made to further an independent expenditure — such as spending on mailers or ads boosting a candidate. Current law sets that bar at $10,000.
Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly’s majority leader and a chief sponsor of the bill, argued that allowing larger donations to individual candidates would bring more transparency to campaign spending by encouraging donors to give to campaigns that must report the donations, instead of to political groups that can shield donors’ identities.
“Dark money continues to be raised and spent all without the proper disclosure that gives the press, our taxpayers, and the voters the ability to ask the right questions: who, why, and for what purpose,” Greenwald said on the Assembly floor.
The bill would also require independent expenditure groups to disclose all spending in support of or against candidates — current law requires disclosure of this spending only if it’s more than $3,000 — and allow county and state political parties to open housekeeping accounts to pay for legal and other non-political expenses. Donations to these accounts would be capped at $37,500.
Defanging the watchdog
Recent opposition to the bill has centered around provisions that would drastically reduce the time allotted to the Election Law Enforcement Commission for investigations of campaign finance violations and allow the governor to replace the agency’s current commissioners without Senate approval. The Murphy administration seeks to oust the commission’s current director, Jeff Brindle.
The bill would reduce the statute of limitations on campaign finance cases investigated by the commission from 10 years to two years, a reduction commission officials have said would invalidate 80% of active cases.
Critics of the bill have noted that the commission in January filed complaints against two Democratic legislative leadership committees and the Republican and Democratic state committees over a series of alleged campaign finance violations related to 2017’s elections. If Murphy signs the bill, those investigations would disappear.
Officials and advocates have unsuccessfully sought to push lawmakers toward a five-year statute of limitations, the same length imposed on campaign finance cases investigated by the Federal Election Commission.
“There’s a reasonable middle ground,” Hensley said. “But what we can’t do is do this retroactive thing, where legislators are voting to kill investigations into their own campaign committees.”
Assembly lawmakers on Thursday introduced a bill they say would help the commission make their investigations more robust by increasing the agency’s budget by $1.5 million.
“By providing additional funding, this bill ensures the public has a true watchdog when it comes to money in politics,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said in a statement. “The additional funding will enable officials in charge of oversight of campaign spending to have the staff and tools necessary to provide more information to the public.”
Good government advocates have raised alarms over provisions in the bill that would override local pay-to-play laws while weakening the state pay-to-play law. The law is meant to prevent corruption by limiting political donors’ ability to win public contracts in exchange for campaign donations.
Greenwald, the bill’s Assembly sponsor, said the shift away from a patchwork system would allow smaller, less resourced firms to participate in the political process without unknowingly breaching one local pay-to-play law or another.
“Wherever you want to participate in the political process, you know you can make a legal contribution and you will not get caught in some web of some small community in South Jersey that’s different than another contribution level in Central Jersey, which is different than North Jersey,” he said, adding, “There is a statewide standard that everybody can play from.”
Only donations made directly to candidates would invoke pay-to-play restrictions if the bill is signed into law, while current law invokes them after contributions to party organizations of all levels.
The change would allow a business to make donations to party organizations backing candidates — including to committees directly controlled by legislative leaders — without being barred from contracts awarded by those candidates.
It would also allow the executive branch to award contracts to firms that make donations to the partys’ state committees. It’s traditional for governors or gubernatorial nominees to handpick their state party chairs.
Dana DiFilippo contributed to this story.
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