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Assemblyman Dan Benson. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Benson says he’ll vote no on Elections Transparency Act

Mercer lawmaker is first Democrat to announce opposition to controversial proposal

By David Wildstein, February 27 2023 2:42 am

Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) will vote against a controversial bill that doubles campaign contribution limits and ends local pay-to-play laws but also requires dark money groups to disclose donors over $7,500, when it reaches the Assembly floor today.

Benson announced his opposition to the bill during a Mercer County Executive Democratic Primary debate sponsored by the New Jersey Globe on Sunday night.

“When it came up before me in committee, as often we do, we vote to get it out of committee, but we reserve the right to vote differently on the floor. There’s been a number of amendments on that bill,” Benson said.  “Unfortunately, I feel like that bill has kind of moved away from its original focus, which was to try to make sure that every municipality — because there’s over 100 that still don’t have any pay-to-play protections — would get covered and to have better enforcement by having uniformity.  But some of the changes that we’ve seen more recently give me great concern, and so it’s my intention to vote no on it tomorrow.”

Five-term incumbent Brian Hughes, his opponent in the county executive race, pounded Benson for changing his mind.

“Daniel is like everyone else seemingly in the legislature who votes yes before they vote no,  who wants to change things until they don’t want to change things,” Hughes charged.  “His bill that came out of committee would have drastically changed the pay-to-play law in Mercer County, and he was willing to do that until tomorrow.”

Hughes accused Benson of “showing his hand in how he  desperately wants to be county executive.”

But Benson claimed Hughes “just doesn’t know how the process works.”

“I think this is, again, another example about the people and what our values are. This bill would have — if they had made it stronger – show where the dark money was.” Benson said.  “We would have known a little bit better about the connections between Brian and George Norcross.”

Benson said the changes to the bill after it was voted out of committee last week – his vote to release the bill came last year —  “make me feel it’s not a good bill for New Jersey or for Mercer County.”

I’m going to vote no,” he said.  “That’s part of being a leader and being transparent with your positions.”

Had Benson voted for the bill, it might have tempered support for him among progressive Democrats who play an increasingly important role at the Mercer County Democratic Convention on Sunday.   He has the backing of New Jersey Working Families and Our Revolution Mercer County.

So far, Benson is the only Democrat in the legislature to publicly declare opposition to the Elections Transparency Act, which critics say would gut the political independence of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, the bi-partisan watchdog agency that regulates campaign finance issues and lobbyists and approves public matching funds for gubernatorial campaigns.

A late amendment to the bill last week would allow the governor to hire and fire the commission’s executive director.

Benson’s no vote means Democrats must get 41 of the remaining 45 majority party members to vote yes.  The Assembly’s 34 Republicans are expected to oppose the bill.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville) said last week that the proposal “is the equivalent of taking us back to the 1980s and undoing all of the protections that have been put in place to limit corruption in the state of New Jersey.”

Republicans are joined in their opposition to the legislation by progressive Democrats.

Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers professor and a suporter of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of organized lines in federal court, said in an Op-Ed published in the New Jersey Globe on Sunday evening that the bill  “is an open invitation for corruption and abuse.”

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