After more than a month of intense debate, and nearly a year after it was first introduced, the so-called “Elections Transparency Act” cleared the Assembly Appropriations Committee today in what may be its final committee vote before it passes the full legislature. The Assembly is scheduled to hold a voting session next week, while the Senate already passed the bill on Monday, though it will likely have to pass it again next week to account for minor amendments.
If enacted, the bill would make a number of crucial changes to New Jersey’s campaign finance laws. It would double existing campaign contribution limits; create a reporting system for independent expenditures (or “dark money”); make pay-to-play laws more uniform statewide and eliminate local laws; and allow state parties to create housekeeping accounts for non-political cash.
Most contentiously, the bill would reshape the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) by sweeping away its current commissioners and temporarily giving Gov. Phil Murphy direct appointment powers over their successors, as well as instituting a retroactive two-year statute of limitations on ELEC enforcement decisions.
Joe Donohue, ELEC’s deputy director and a frequent presence in committee hearings on the bill, testified once again today. He said that while many of the bill’s proposals were good, he remains concerned about the provisions reshaping ELEC – provisions which were only added last month, seemingly as part of a fight between Murphy’s administration and ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle.
“This legislation is largely an outgrowth of our recommendations,” Donohue said. “We recommended expanded disclosure for independent groups, stronger parties with higher contribution limits, and consolidated pay-to-play laws. But there are provisions where we continue to have serious questions.”
Several representatives from progressive groups and good-government organizations raised similar questions. Philip Hensley of the League of Women Voters, for example, brought up a conflict of interest with the two-year statute of limitations on ELEC decisions: it would directly benefit those committees and candidates currently under investigation, which includes the state Democratic committee.
“This [provision] comes after announcements from ELEC in January that they’re investigating some of the major party committees in this state,” Hensley said. “For this body to vote to retroactively kill those investigations is utterly inappropriate.”
But Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Mount Laurel), one of the bill’s Assembly sponsors and a member of the Appropriations Committee, defended the bill and said its changes to reporting requirements and pay-to-play laws would increase transparency.
“There is more transparency in this bill, as it stands, than what the current law reflects,” Murphy said.
All Democrats on the committee voted for the bill, while most Republicans voted against it, with the exception of Assemblyman Brandon Umba (R-Medford). Umba’s yes vote aligns him with his district’s senator, State Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton), who was part of the 24-12 Senate majority that passed the bill on Monday.
Given the results of today’s vote, it’s unlikely that the bill will have much trouble passing the full Assembly next week. Once the amended version passes both houses, it will go to Governor Murphy’s desk; asked yesterday whether he will sign it, Murphy said, “Let’s wait and see where this winds up.”
This story was updated at 6:21 p.m. with a correction: while the bill has already passed the Senate once, minor amendments mean it will likely have to pass the upper chamber again next week.