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Transparency claims of campaign finance bill are laughable


Transparency claims of campaign finance bill are laughable

Mar 17, 2023 | 2:54 pm ET
By Terrence T. McDonald
Transparency claims of campaign finance bill are laughable
Gov. Phil Murphy wants the power to unilaterally remake the state's election law watchdog. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

My hat is off to the evil genius who named New Jersey Democrats’ campaign finance overhaul bill.

The measure would, among other things, allow more political donors to win public contracts, replace strict local pay-to-play laws with the state’s more lenient law, allow the state’s political parties to rake in way more cash, and gut the independence of the agency tasked with enforcing election laws.

The bill’s official name? The Elections Transparency Act.

That it won another key vote Thursday during Sunshine Week — the annual celebration of access to public information and open government — is even better. Chef’s kiss, 10/10, no notes.

There’s a lot in the bill to hate. But the provision giving Gov. Phil Murphy control over the Election Law Enforcement Commission is the biggest affront to the measure’s stated goal of transparency.

The agency — little known, except to politicians and reporters — enforces our state’s election laws. When a political candidate — from governor down to town council — doesn’t disclose where they received a $2,500 donation, ELEC investigates to determine whether the candidate should be punished.

If you want to know whether the person you’re voting for received a bunch of money from, say, a local developer, you should like the idea that someone out there is making sure politicians are punished for keeping their donors a secret, or for violating a host of other laws intended to keep our elections clean. It may not stop every dirty political act, but the threat of investigations and fines surely prevents some of them from happening.

Right now, the agency’s commissioners are nominated by the governor and approved by the state Senate, like judges are. But the bill winding its way through the Legislature would give the governor the sole power to replace every current commissioner and directly appoint four new members.

We’ve already reported one reason why Murphy wants loyalists at ELEC: Jeff Brindle, the agency’s director, alleges Murphy has tried to oust him and couldn’t get the current commissioners to do it, so putting his people in place now would make it easier to fire Brindle. This would explain why the bill gives Murphy direct appointment powers for one time only.

Philip Hensley, with the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, told me he finds the context here — meaning the reports about Murphy leaning on the current ELEC commissioners to axe Brindle — troubling, and noted that giving Murphy complete control over the appointments keeps the public in the dark.

“There could be legitimate arguments about ELEC’s personnel or management or changes that need to be made … but by going around the ordinary process, even if they are bipartisan nominees, we don’t get that debate and the public doesn’t have a right to know,” he said.

I had a chat with Stephen Holden, one of the current commissioners who would probably get the boot if the bill passes. When I asked him if he thinks this version of the bill is better than the last — which would have given Murphy the direct power to fire Brindle — he laughed.

Holden, a retired judge nominated to the post by Gov. Chris Christie, declined to speculate about Murphy’s motives here, but said Senate approval of ELEC commissioners is important.

“I think the purposes of the election law statute are better served by that process remaining intact,” he said.

Maura Collinsgru, with community advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, hit the nail on the head with her testimony against the bill during a Senate committee hearing yesterday.

“We do think this transparency bill runs counter to transparency,” she said.

A request for comment from Murphy’s office was not returned.