With spending onslaught approaching, calls for campaign finance reform grow urgent

As New Jersey faces a potential $100 million onslaught of spending this year from super PACs and other interest groups, the leader of the state’s campaign finance watchdog agency says now is the time to do something to prepare for it.

“The way I see it, if something isn’t done, we’re not going to recognize the electoral landscape in 2020," said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey State Election Law Enforcement Commission. "These groups are totally dominating and influencing elections, increasingly in New Jersey."

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For years, Brindle’s agency has pushed legislators to pass a law that would require state-level donor disclosure from outside groups that play in New Jersey’s elections, including super PACs and nonprofit issue advocacy organizations formed under the IRS’s 501(c) code.

But there’s new urgency as New Jersey voters could be faced with as many as three constitutional amendment ballot questions this year — two of them extremely contentious. It’s better, Brindle said, for money to be channeled back to New Jersey’s political parties, which can be more easily monitored and represent a broader swath of interests than super PACs and nonprofits that generally have just one aim.

Gambling interests and others are expected to spend tens of millions on advertising for and against a proposal that would allow two casinos in North Jersey. Jeff Gural, the operator of Meadowlands Racetrack who wants to put a casino on the site, last year estimated backers of expanding gambling would spend $10 to $15 million. Opponents, which would likely include other casino interests, are also expected to spend millions.

And a proposed constitutional amendment to ramp up and eventually fully fund New Jersey’s troubled pension system is just one state Senate vote away from getting on the ballot. Public sector unions are expected to spend millions to support it, while Gov. Chris Christie has urged the business community to spend heavily against it.

The other ballot question — whether to dedicate any new gas tax revenue exclusively to transportation projects — is far less controversial, though the fight on raising the gas tax rages on in the Legislature and has already attracted significant spending and lobbying from business and labor groups.

Brindle estimates that with all three questions on the ballot, the total spending could be $80 to $100 million.

Two lawmakers recently introduced legislation largely based on Brindle’s requests.

“Let’s talk about disclosure here. Come on, why should there be any secrecy at all in terms of who gives money?” said Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick.

Bramnick in April and Assemblyman Troy Singleton in June each introduced bills — (A3639) for Bramnick and (A3902) and (A3903) for Singleton — that would require public disclosure of outside group spending and seek to strengthen New Jersey’s weakening political parties.

The bills would also simplify New Jersey’s patchwork of state and local pay-to-play laws that are intended to prevent companies from gaining contracts in exchange for campaign contributions. Currently, state law in theory applies across the state, but it has a gaping loophole that exempts contracts awarded through a vaguely-worded “fair and open” process. Towns and counties are allowed to enact their own ordinances to fill in that gap, and many have, creating a mishmash of laws that can be a bureaucratic nightmare for contractors.

Both bills would apply a single, universal pay-to-play law for all levels of government. Singleton’s proposal (A3903), unlike Bramnick’s , would exempt political parties from the pay-to-play law, which is something Brindle has advocated for.

“One of the things that’s happening now is we’re seeing more and more contractors that are finding a way around the pay-to-play law and they’re not giving to political parties but to these other groups. They’re just circumventing the law by doing that,” Brindle said. “It’s really not beneficial to the public. So it’s a way of strengthening the parties. When you change the flow of the money, you change the electoral landscape.”

The bills would also increase the amount donors could give to individual candidates, political parties and regular PACs (super PACs can already take in unlimited donations). The individual donation limit would go up from $2,600 to $3,000 per election.

New Jersey has seen big advertising onslaughts from anonymously funded groups before. In 2012, a nonprofit group calling itself the Committee for Our Children’s Future spent $8 million to promote Gov. Chris Christie by praising his education policies, one year before his own reelection campaign. The source of that group's funding remains a mystery.

And just last year, a nonprofit group popped up seemingly out of nowhere, run out of a low-level Democratic operative’s North Brunswick condo, and donated $400,000 to a super PAC that’s raising money to support Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop’s anticipated run for governor in 2017. The operative, Gary Hirsch, wouldn’t reveal the source of the money and was hesitant to speak on the phone with POLITICO about the group’s goals and organization.

Allies of Senate President Stephen Sweeney also have a super PAC expected to aid him, but it voluntarily discloses its financial information with ELEC.

Singleton, who said the secrecy behind donations has become an “impediment to the Democratic process,” said he plans to ask Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto to allow a committee hearing on his two bills in the fall.

Bramnick and Singleton are not the first lawmakers to write bills with ELEC’s recommendation. And the legislation could easily fade into obscurity with thousands of other bills that are never acted on over the course of a two year legislative session, including other attempts at campaign finance overhaul. A spokesman for Prieto did not respond to a question seeking comment.

“I’m always cautiously optimistic that something’s going to get done, given the fact that we have these bills that are being put in and basically there’s bipartisan interest in this kind of legislation,” Brindle said. "So, yes, I’m optimistic that there’s interest in doing something about what’s going on with these independent groups and with pay-to-play.”

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