N.J. lawmakers do not need more money from campaign donors

Antonio 'Tony' Teixeira and state Senator Nicholas "No-Show Nick" Scutari

by Terrence T. McDonald, New Jersey Monitor

When Senate President Nicholas Scutari ran for reelection in 2021, he raised more than $730,000from donors for that year’s Democratic primary.

He had no opponent.

When he faced off that November with Republican William Michelson, Scutari raised about $350,000. Michelson scored $4,070.

Now, you tell me: Did Scutari really need to raise any more money?

Well, soon he will be able to. A bill he sponsored that passed the Legislature Thursday and was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy Monday doubles the amount individual donors can give to candidates, hiking the max contribution to $5,200.

Groups with higher donation limits — some can give $8,200 to one candidate — will also get to give double. Max donations to some party committees will triple, to $75,000.

By my calculations, Scutari would have raked in about $575,000 more in 2021 if all his maxed-out donors maxed out under the new donation caps. 

Michelson had no maxed-out donors, so raising contribution caps wouldn’t have helped him a bit.

Michelson is trying to oust Scutari again this year. He’ll need some richer friends. 

There are other odious provisions in this bill — kneecapping the Election Law Enforcement Commission by limiting its ability to investigate any campaign violations that happened longer than two years ago is one — but allowing big-dollar donors to double or even triple their campaign checks is surely the worst, one that will keep our powerful leaders’ wallets fat and their wealthy donors expecting more favors in return for their checks.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen, a Republican from Morris County, has been on a tear about this bill and its boosting of donation limits. Bergen said one effect of doubling caps will be to limit the power of challengers. As if elected officials in New Jersey need any more advantages.

Bergen said a less-powerful lawmaker than Scutari — one who is only sitting on, say, $150,000 in their campaign account — will be much harder to defeat with the new contribution limits.

“A no-name off the street with good ideas has a shot there now, maybe. But now the incumbent is going to have $300,000. And the no-name off the street, the brand-new person trying to come in, doesn’t have any of those relationships and is going to get none of the maxed-out donations,” he said.

Why the change?

Supporters of the bill say higher donation limits will accomplish two things.

One is address higher costs. The current donation limits were set in 2005, when the average cost of a dozen eggs was $1.99.

“The limitations, you know, hasn’t gone up in a number of years. The prices have gone up,” Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, a Democrat from Mercer County, said during a committee hearing on the bill last month.

He’s right, prices have gone up. You may have thought the real victims of inflation were the working-class parents struggling to feed their families; no, the true victims are the candidates for elective office who have to fork over more of their donors’ money when they buy Popeyes for their staff.

I’ll note here that during DeAngelo’s last reelection bid, he collected more than $500,000 in donations and spent only $327,500. His campaign account has more than half a million dollars in it. He had no trouble paying bills under the old donation limits. He’ll be fine if they stay the same.

Onto the other argument.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, an increasingly larger amount of campaign cash has shifted to dark-money groups that have laxer rules on reporting who their funders are. Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, a Camden County Democrat who has sponsored this bill, argues that allowing donors to give more to candidates who do have to report their identities will shift some of that money back. Scutari agrees, saying during a voting session last month that the bill represents a “far better system” than our current one.

“There is no doubt that there is money in politics. But we’re going to ensure that people that are raising money are going to tell you where it comes from,” he said.

A worthy goal, and one of the few that would explain why this bill is called the Elections Transparency Act.

But will that happen? I talked to someone who would know: Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert with D.C.-based nonprofit Public Citizen.

Holman told me that raising donation limits will have “very little, if any” impact on the money flowing into dark-money groups. Their donors “relish their secretive campaign contributions” because they don’t want to be publicly identified as funders of whatever campaign they’re funneling money to, he said.

This isn’t just conjecture on Holman’s part; he knows what’s happened on the federal side.

“Several years ago, the federal law was modified to triple the contribution limits to party committees and added three new accounts to which donors may contribute,” he added. “A wealthy donor may now give more than $400,000 to each national party committee, which is then subject to disclosure. This had no impact on dark money in federal elections.”

I’m sure Greenwald is sincere when he says he thinks dark money will start coming into the light now that donors can give him $5,200 instead of $2,600. But I think I’ll believe Holman that it won’t.

I asked Michelson whether he thinks the bill will help level the playing field between newcomers and better funded incumbents.

Scutari has reported raising more than $900,000 for his upcoming primary fight — against no one — and Michelson has reported raising nothing.

Michelson laughed, saying there are “not a lot of people who are interested” in giving him $5,200 a pop.

“You don’t have any donors maxing out to you?” I asked.

“Good God, I wish I could find somebody that could,” he said. “Maybe good enough to put me in their will and then die before the election.”

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