Lawmakers yank bill that critics warn would gut election protections

by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor

Legislators in both chambers postponed voting on a bill Monday that would make sweeping changes to New Jersey’s campaign finance and anti-corruption laws, after government watchdogs and Republicans alike loudly condemned the bill as a Democratic power grab.

Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the bill’s sponsor, said he and the Assembly sponsors — Carol Murphy (D-Burlington) and Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) — are “reconsidering” some of the amendments added during a committee hearing last week that riled up critics.

“Everything’s on the table right now. We’ll make sure that the bill is well thought out and passed,” Scutari told reporters after the Senate adjourned. He refused to say when the bill might arise for a vote again other than “as soon as we can get it done.”

On paper, the bill is known as the Election Transparency Act. Assemblyman Brian Bergen, one of its chief critics, calls it the “Public Corruption Authorization Act.”

“This bill is not an attempt at transparency. It is using transparency as a mask for the unmitigated greed of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee,” Bergen and his Assembly colleague Antwon McClellan wrote in a statement last week.

The bill would make wide-ranging changes to decades-old campaign finance rules and radically overhaul New Jersey’s 2005 pay-to-play law, which bars companies that have made political donations from receiving certain public contracts.

Under the rewritten law, only contributions made directly to candidates who take or hold office would trigger the anti-corruption law. Advocates have charged the proposed new framework would allow for an easy end-run around pay-to-pay laws by allowing donors who steer money to party organizations and certain political committees to receive no-bid public contracts.

Some provisions in the bill received resounding outrage, including a plan to shorten the statute of limitations for election law violations from 10 to two years. That change is meant to speed up complaint investigation and enforcement by the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the state’s independent campaign finance enforcement agency, Scutari said.

“Not many things in New Jersey have a statute of limitations any further than two years,” Scutari said. “If you get injured, if you get hurt by a doctor, if you get hurt on the job, you have to bring your complaint in two years. If we can’t have government work in such a manner that a complaint can be filed (and decided) within two years, I don’t know what we’re doing. Not only that, many of these organizations are defunct by the time that the complaints are rendered.”

Critics say this change would overload the agency, allowing some violators to escape unnoticed and unpunished. Scutari told reporters Monday that lawmakers are considering increasing ELEC’s funding to avoid that problem.Assemblyman Brian Bergen in a statement said the bill’s claims of transparency are “a mask for the unmitigated greed” of New Jersey’s Democratic Party. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Watchdogs also blasted an amendment that would empower the governor to appoint — and remove — ELEC’s executive director. That duty has historically been in the hands of the group’s four commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans, to ensure its independence as an oversight body.

That proposed change drove ELEC to issue a statement Monday urging legislators to oppose the bill, saying that provision “flies in the face of the original intent” of the 1973 statute that created the agency, which decreed it should be independent and free from any perceived or actual political interference.

“Just weeks away from its 50th anniversary, ELEC as an institution has survived with its integrity intact through the terms of ten governors — five Democrats and five Republicans,” Commissioners Eric H. Jaso, Stephen M. Holden, and Marguerite T. Simon wrote.

Scutari’s bill threatens that integrity, they said.

“Regardless of which party controls the governor’s office, executive directors appointed by one party, or under the constant threat of termination, would be more susceptible to blocking investigations of their party’s candidates or committees while targeting those of the opposing party,” the commissioners wrote. “And of equal concern, an ELEC run by a political appointee could not investigate or bring enforcement actions against campaigns conducted by the opposing party without suspicion of partisan motives.”

Critics also have complained this change in particular is intended to oust ELEC’s longtime executive director, Jeff Brindle, who reportedly made a remark criticizing National Coming Out Day in an email exchange with a staffer, according to Politico New Jersey.

An attorney for Brindle has accused the administration of playing politics with the commission — not the first such accusation Murphy’s faced. In 2021, the governor left one of the commission’s two GOP seats empty during his reelection campaign against Jack Ciattarelli, leaving Democrats with a two-to-one majority. He still hasn’t nominated a fourth board member, though ELEC’s decisions rarely split along partisan lines.

Scutari admitted he “didn’t love that amendment, quite frankly,” and told reporters he is working with the governor’s office to tweak it to allay critics’ concerns.

The bill also would allow the Democratic and Republican state parties to create “housekeeping accounts” not subject to state campaign contribution limits — something critics say amounts to “slush funds.”

Scutari defended that provision, saying it mirrors a federal guideline that allows the major parties to use housekeeping funds to pay employee salaries, rent, and other “regular expenses that are not necessarily deemed to be part of the political process.”

“People are donating in order to support organizations’ political purposes, not to pay the rent,” he said.

Some less controversial provisions

Other provisions of Scutari’s bill had more mixed reviews, such as one abolishing local pay-to-play laws that protect government contracts from corruption and requiring all municipalities and counties to instead follow state law. That part of the bill is meant to standardize such rules in a state where the rules can change just by crossing a town line, according to committee testimony Thursday.

But critics say local pay-to-play laws sometimes are tougher than the state’s law — so defaulting to state statute can weaken pay-to-play protections in those places.

A few changes the bill would make are not controversial, including one provision that would double campaign contribution limits from $2,600 to $5,200 per candidate per election and another that would require independent expenditure groups to report contributions of $7,500 or more.

Campaign contribution limits haven’t risen in 18 years, so supporters say increasing them will help level the playing field for candidates who get outspent by competitors with deeper pockets or outside support.

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