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The headquarters of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission in Trenton. (Photo: Joey Fox for the New Jersey Globe).

ELEC’s new leadership will have the power to reshape 2025 gubernatorial fundraising

Elections Transparency Act left gubernatorial limits untouched, but new commissioners could make big changes

By Joey Fox, April 11 2023 2:56 pm

How much should it cost to become governor of New Jersey?

That’s a thorny question, but it’s one that the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), which determines gubernatorial contribution and spending limits, is tasked with answering.

Currently, gubernatorial candidates may receive a maximum of $4,900 from a single donor in each of the primary and general elections. Candidates who qualify for and choose to participate in the state’s public financing system, which gives them a 2-to-1 match on every dollar raised, are subject to the additional limitation of a $22.9 million cap on total spending – $7.3 million for the primary election and $15.6 for the general election.

ELEC adjusts those caps prior to every gubernatorial election, typically just to keep up with inflation. For the 2025 election, however, there’s reason to believe that the caps could be subject to more significant changes.

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Elections Transparency Act, overhauling New Jersey’s campaign finance laws in myriad ways. The gubernatorial financing system itself is largely left alone under the bill, but ELEC is not; the governor now has the (temporary) ability to unilaterally appoint an entirely new set of ELEC commissioners, who will then have the power to reshape the agency as they see fit.

The gubernatorial financing system is one area where they may decide to make major adjustments. 

While the Elections Transparency Act kept gubernatorial limits the same, it doubled contribution limits for state and local candidates from $2,600 to $5,200 per primary or general election. That means downballot candidates can now raise much more money for offices as minor as school board and town council – more, in fact, than a candidate for governor can raise under current limits, though gubernatorial candidates can gain access to matching funds that others do not.

It’s possible, given the Elections Transparency Act as well as the considerable rate of inflation over the last two years, that ELEC will choose to implement a similarly dramatic increase. After all, most of the campaign finance status quo was just upended; the new commissioners may decide that gubernatorial limits should be upended as well to keep them in alignment.

Murphy, whose administration has grown much more involved in ELEC proceedings since late last year, could also play a role. If the governor decides there are changes he wants made – whatever those changes may be – he’ll have the unimpeded power to appoint commissioners who agree with him. (Murphy’s administration has already made its preferences clear on a separate issue: the firing of ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle, whose ouster is likely a prerequisite qualification for any new commissioner Murphy appoints.)

And even if ELEC’s new commissioners choose not to make big changes, the fact that the agency is dealing with so many adjustments in the middle of an election cycle will make things more complicated no matter what.

“We’re doing it out of sync,” ELEC deputy executive director Joe Donohue said. “We’re not on a four-year schedule.”

Raising the spending cap has not historically been a fraught affair. ELEC staffers will calculate proposed adjustments to contribution and spending caps based on inflation and media costs, and their recommendations are approved by ELEC’s board of commissioners.

Prior to the 2021 gubernatorial election, ELEC raised the contribution limit from $4,300 to $4,900 and the total spending cap from $20.2 million to $22.9 million. The process was a smooth one, with both major-party gubernatorial nominees choosing to participate in the public financing system and either hitting or nearly hitting the overall spending cap.

This cycle, with an as-yet unknown cohort of commissioners in place – Murphy said yesterday that he’ll announce who they’ll be “sooner than later” – and unprecedented public focus on the inner workings of ELEC, things may not be so simple.

The 2025 election may still seem a long way off, and it is: 784 days, to be precise. But Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop’s campaign announcement this morning shows that the race is already underway, and “sooner than later,” ELEC will have to determine what the rules of engagement will be.

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