New Jersey Legislature Passes Bill Overhauling Campaign Finance System

New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature successfully passed a comprehensive reform of the state’s campaign finance laws, with the measure now headed to Democratic Governor Phil Murphy’s desk for approval.

Dubbed the Elections Transparency Act, although critics argue that the name fails to accurately represent the bill’s provisions, the legislation encompasses a wide range of changes. These include increasing spending and contribution limits, revamping pay-to-play laws, and shortening the duration of investigations into campaign finance violations conducted by the state’s election watchdog commission.

Advocates of the bill contend that the proposed changes are long overdue and essential. They assert that the legislation incorporates genuine transparency measures, such as obligating groups like super political action committees to disclose their contributions to the state watchdog. Furthermore, the bill reduces the reporting threshold from $10,000 to $7,500.

Among the notable alterations introduced by the bill, primary spending limits for gubernatorial candidates would rise from $2.2 million to $7.3 million, and general election limits would increase from $5 million to $15.6 million. Additionally, the cap on individual contributions to candidates and parties would grow from $2,600 to $5,200. The legislation also retroactively reduces the statute of limitations for campaign finance violations investigated by the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission from 10 years to two years. Moreover, it temporarily permits the governor to appoint members to the commission without Senate approval and eliminates individual towns’ pay-to-play laws.

During the Assembly floor debate on Thursday, Democratic Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Republican Assembly member Brian Bergen clashed over the bill. Bergen, a vocal opponent, questioned the reasoning behind the increased contribution caps. In response, Greenwald, the bill’s sponsor, emphasized that the legislation’s primary objective was to enforce greater disclosure, as “dark money” groups do not reveal their donors.

“It’s not the point of the bill, but it’s part of the bill,” Bergen argued, expressing concern that it could enable individuals to purchase influence.

Greenwald countered by asserting that the legislation would help combat corruption by mandating disclosure.

“It’s not the amount of money that you can contribute that leads to corruption,” Greenwald asserted.

Senate President Nicholas Scutari, the sole member to voice support for the bill during last week’s Senate vote, highlighted the improvements the legislation would bring compared to the current system. Scutari cited a campaign finance violation from 2016 that only recently resulted in a modest fine, emphasizing the need to retroactively reduce the statute of limitations from 10 years to two years.

“Why should we allow them to go after people after they’re out of office?” Scutari questioned, noting the lack of deterrence provided by such fines. “How would you like to get a traffic ticket two years after you went through (a red light)?”

However, opponents of the bill argue that it fails to live up to its name.

Democratic state Sen. Nia Gill expressed concern that the measure expands the influence of money in politics, while Republican state Sen. Anthony Bucco claimed it impedes the commission’s ability to prosecute campaign finance violations.

“This bill has become simply a bad bill with a nice name,” Bucco asserted.

Critics of the legislation particularly highlight the expansion of pay-to-play laws as one of its most problematic loopholes. These laws aim to restrict political contributions from companies that hold public contracts. Under the new bill, recipients of state government contracts would be allowed to contribute to gubernatorial candidates if the contracts are awarded through a “fair and open process.” However, the bill does not provide a clear definition of what constitutes “fair and open,” raising concerns about potential favoritism.

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