Political contributions made by New Jersey’s public contractors declined in 2016 for the third year in a row, but the state’s election watchdog remains concerned about the role of groups that can skirt pay-to-play laws.
Businesses with public contracts in the state donated $8.1 million last year to candidates, political parties and other groups in New Jersey, according to a preliminary analysis conducted by the Election Law Enforcement Commission. That is the second-lowest amount since pay-to-play restrictions began and partially reflects the lack of gubernatorial or legislative elections in 2016.
But political action committees and advocacy groups still received 16 percent, or nearly $1.3 million, of all reported contributions, with more that may have gone unreported. Those organizations are not covered by state pay-to-play laws and disclosure requirements.
Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, called that figure a “substantial portion” of contractor contributions that points to the need for reform to the state’s pay-to-play laws.
“Without changes, party fundraising will continue to sink while the war chests of independent groups will keep swelling,” Brindle said. “The public will be the losers since independent groups can more easily hide what they raise and spend.”
Most of the major beneficiaries of contractor contributions in 2016 were county candidates in Camden, Gloucester and Middlesex counties, although contractors also reported sending money to several candidates for governor: $24,550 to the campaign of Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, $17,200 to Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and $3,550 to Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
In addition, federal super PACs set up by supporters of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop received $63,600 and $3,000, respectively. Both men were expected last year to announce their intention to run for governor as Democrats but ultimately decided not to after Murphy secured key endorsements and committed to spending millions of dollars of his personal wealth on his campaign.
New Jersey law generally bars any company with a contract worth more than $17,500 from giving more than $300 to gubernatorial candidates and party fundraising committees. Any contractor that gives money has to file a disclosure with ELEC.
The average contribution made by contractors in 2016 was $1,078, down from a peak of $1,222 in both 2006 and 2007.
But those same companies can get around the contribution caps and disclosure requirements by funding PACs or issue-advocacy groups, which are free to buy ads and promote specific candidates as long as they don't coordinate directly with their campaigns. Such groups have cropped up across the country since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, allowing unlimited contributions from groups.
A notable recent example was the Committee for Our Children's Future, which spent $7.8 million on television ads during Gov. Chris Christie’s first term, cheering on the governor and his agenda. The group, which was headed by a few of Christie's college friends, has not disclosed its donors and has been inactive for years.
These days, PACs and independent groups are active in every major race in New Jersey on both sides of the aisle.
Brindle in his report suggested a series of reforms that would encourage money to flow back toward political parties and candidates, which he said “are much more accountable than the independent groups and by law have to disclose their contributors and their expenditures.”
Changes include consolidating pay-to-play restrictions into a single state law; raising from $300 to $1,000 the amount contractors could give without jeopardizing their contracts; waving the $1,000 limit for party committees, though contractors still would be subject to contribution limits that apply to all other donors; and requiring more contractors to file annual reports with ELEC detailing their contracts and contributions, including those to PACs and independent groups.
Brindle also called for restrictions on the amount contractors can give to PACs.
Most of those reforms are contained in separate bills (A -3639, A-3902, A-3903) sponsored by Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, and Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, although none of the legislation has received a hearing in committee.