A measure that would gut anti-corruption laws and increase the amount of money individuals, corporations, unions, associations, and similar groups can on bribery seems poised to sail through the New Jersey Legislature on Monday.
The so-called Elections Transparency Act would double the amount of money individuals or groups could give to political machine-backed candidates, political parties, and other organizations.
A coalition of 25 progressive, environmental, and labor groups urged Gov. Phil Murphy to stop the plan, arguing that it would radically change New Jersey’s campaign finance law. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Communications Workers of America Local 1032, and Service Employees International Union 32BJ and others
The limit on contributions to candidates would go from $2,600 to $5,200 in a given election cycle while the maximum permissible donations to political committees would double to $14,400. Those limits would also increase annually under a formula in the bill.
It also would dismantle local laws that prohibit campaign donations from people who do business directly with the government and regulate all those donations through state law instead.
“If we move forward on this, it would worsen the already terrible problem of professional service firms essentially controlling the state and county governments and local governments,” said Sue Altman, director of New Jersey Working Families.
“While we’re all in support of improving transparency to reduce and eliminate the influence of dark money and politics, this bill somehow manages to gut New Jersey’s anticorruption laws,” said Sheila Reynertson, a senior policy analyst with think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. “It guts local pay-to-play provisions in the name of simplicity and strengthening enforcement, and it blows the lid off of political contributions by doubling contribution limits and removing most provisions on business contributions to parties.”
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 political parties to give up to $50,000 annually, while county political parties would be able to contribute up to $74,000 per year.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Committee and other cases opened the floodgate of political donations that are shielded from public view, but state regulations require disclosures of money spent to influence elections. Critics say the legislation would flood campaigns with more cash.
“This is called the Elections Transparency Act – I think we should call it the Public Corruption Authorization Act,” Assemblymen Brian Bergen said yesterday about the bill. “This is the equivalent of taking us back to the 1980’s, and undoing all of the protections that have been put in place to limit corruption in the state of New Jersey.”
Bergen, a Denville Republican, said the measure sponsored by Senate President Nicholas “No-Show Nick” Scutari, is an invitation for political corruption and abuse in the state’s public contracting system.
Scutari’s alleged no-show job as Linden’s municipal prosecutor — first revealed in a 2019 audit — allowed him to collect years of pension credits to which he was not entitled, according to two investigative reports.
Scutari was a municipal prosecutor in Linden for 15 years before being fired in January 2019 after an investigation of his work found 167 days between 2014 and 2018 when he did not appear in court.
While collecting a part-time salary of $85,000-per-year, Scutari did not attend about 40% of municipal court hearings between 2014 and 2018.
Linden paid $147,494 in salary, pension contributions, and payroll taxes for Scutari on those days, according to forensic accounting reports from Gazaleh Consulting and Calcagni & Kanefsky.
A group of progressive Democrat activists wanted the state’s Joint Legislative Committee of Ethical Standards to probe Scutari’s actions called for him to be removed as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but lawmakers instead elevated him to the second-most-powerful position in state government following the defeat of former Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“I think there’s too much money in campaigns as it is,” said Democratic Sen. Shirley Turner, who expressed concern that the proposed law would diminish the influence of small-dollar donors. “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.”
“There’s nothing strategic or targeted with those changes, and the league maintains there’s more than enough money in the system now,” said Sandra Matsen, a representative of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, which opposed the bill at legislative committee hearings.
Matsen said the legislation would effectively gut New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws and make them “almost meaningless.”
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.
Scutari’s proposal would require such contributions to be reported to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, which is backing the reforms, within 24 hours. Critics say changing the state’s campaign finance reporting system would burden fledgling insurgent campaigns while eliminating restrictions would benefit big-money donors and corrupt political machines.
Current law requires campaigns to list on campaign finance disclosure reports a donor’s name, address, and other information, if that contributor has given a total of $300 or more to a campaign.
The bill would reduce that threshold to $200, creating an administrative burden for campaigns that rely on low dollar amounts and making those contributors more likely to receive solicitations from other campaigns or pressure from the political establishment.
The bill would change the threshold for disclosing contractors from being eligible for no-bid contracts. Contributors would be barred from public contracts if they give $200 or more to a campaign, but it would create another loophole in the already weak pay-to-play restrictions by allowing party organizations to accept donations from government contractors.
New Jersey got a D grade in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven analysis of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. That report also found in New Jersey a significant “enforcement gap,” which measures the difference between the laws on the books and how they’re actually implemented.
Another bill that made its way through the Legislature would have made it easier to elude mandatory penalties in public corruption cases, but that was vetoed by Murphy.