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New Jersey Senate approves campaign finance overhaul


New Jersey Senate approves campaign finance overhaul

Mar 20, 2023 | 6:19 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
New Jersey Senate approves campaign finance overhaul
The bill would double limits on contributions to political candidates, triple donations to county party organizations, and allow the governor to remake the Election Law Enforcement Commission. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The Senate by a narrow vote Monday approved a controversial overhaul of New Jersey’s campaign finance system that could allow lawmakers to enact larger contribution limits and weakened oversight in advance of this year’s legislative elections.

The bill, which cleared the 21-vote threshold needed to pass the Senate in a 23 to 12 vote that fell mostly along party lines, would increase the amount political donors can contribute to campaigns and parties, remove towns’ ability to enact their own pay-to-play laws, and allow the governor to appoint new commissioners to the state’s campaign finance watchdog without Senate approval.

“I sincerely believe in the need for reform, but the changes outlined in this bill will have consequences that damage the integrity of our elections and reduce the transparency of our political process,” said Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), the only Democrat to vote against the bill. “We will not solve the issue of money in politics by allowing more money in politics without transparency.”

Good government groups — including state branches of the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union, among numerous others — have urged the Legislature to make further changes to the bill before advancing it, saying the current version would reduce transparency around campaign cash rather than improve it.

Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the bill’s prime sponsor, objected to that characterization.

“There is much more transparency in this bill than currently exists in the legislative system,” Scutari said without expanding.

Three Republican senators — Jean Stanfield (R-Burlington) and Chris Connors (R-Ocean), who are retiring after this year’s elections, and Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic), who is not — voted in favor of the bill.

The measure would double limits on contributions to candidates to $5,200 per election cycle. Limits on donations to county parties and legislative leadership committees — those are run by chamber leaders of either party — would triple to $75,000. The increases to contribution limits would be the first in 18 years.

The measure could reach Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk by March 30, when the Assembly has scheduled its next voting session, though lawmakers in the lower chamber will first have to amend the measure to match its Senate counterpart.

New Jersey Senate approves campaign finance overhaul
Sen. Holly Schepisi warned lawmakers not to give Gov. Phil Murphy the power to directly appoint members of the Election Law Enforcement Commission. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Weakening the watchdog

The sharply increased contribution limits, while controversial, have drawn little attention to the bill in recent days. Instead, eyes have turned to provisions that would allow the governor to appoint a full slate of commissioners to the Election Law Enforcement Commission without Senate approval.

The provision is meant to allow Murphy to oust Jeff Brindle, the commission’s executive director (an earlier version of the bill would have allowed Murphy to get rid of Brindle outright). Murphy has sought to remove him over allegedly anti-gay remarks he made in an email to a commission staffer.

Brindle sued the governor and members of his senior staff last week, alleging they attempted to extort his resignation and violated the confidentiality of an internal Equal Employment Opportunity investigation to do so.

Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) warned lawmakers against giving Murphy this power. 

“We are enabling the administration to weaponize ELEC against any person that might speak out,” Schepisi said. “We are taking away the ability of this Legislature to ensure an impartial ELEC.”

Good government advocates and employees of the commission itself have railed against another provision that would cut the statute of limitations on campaign finance investigations from 10 years to two years. Joe Donohue, the commission’s deputy director, last week told lawmakers the new limit would invalidate 80% of the commission’s ongoing investigations.

From the Senate floor, Scutari argued the commission’s investigations move too slowly to deter political candidates from skirting the state’s election laws. He noted that last week it fined former Paterson City Council candidate Wendy Guzman $31,573.41, the sum of all fundraising and spending Guzman failed to report in the final month of her 2016 race.

“Where is the deterrence in that?” Scutari asked.

Two Republicans, Assemblymen Brian Bergen (R-Morris) and Antwan McClellan (R-Atlantic), recently alleged the change in statute of limitations is meant to shield three Democratic Party organizations that in January became a target of the commission, which lodged complaints against the Democratic State Committee, the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, and NJ Senate Democratic Majority over alleged campaign finance violations in 2017.

The commission in January also lodged a complaint against the Republican State Committee over alleged 2017 campaign finance violations.

The bill’s attempt to preempt local pay-to-play laws — these are meant to prevent elected officials from awarding public contracts to their political benefactors — would replace the local ordinances with the state pay-to-play law, which is often more permissive than its local counterparts.

ELEC has said the patchwork of sometimes conflicting pay-to-play protections makes a law that is already difficult to enforce even more so.

New Jersey Senate approves campaign finance overhaul
Senate President Nicholas Scutari said the state’s election law watchdog has been too slow to investigate violations. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

Independent expenditures

The bill would require independent expenditure groups — including some political action committees and certain nonprofits — to disclose which donors gave them $7,500 or more and reveal spending made “for the purpose of furthering an independent expenditure.” 

That language is intended to protect the bill from a legal challenge similar to the one that killed a separate law thrown out by a judge in 2020. That law, which would have required more public disclosures from certain nonprofits and political organizations, was challenged by groups, including the ACLU.

If the bill becomes law, county and state political parties would gain the ability to open housekeeping accounts to pay for legal and other non-political expenses. Contributions to those accounts are tracked separately from regular political donations but still reported to ELEC and capped at half the normal contribution limit, or $37,500 for county parties.