Home>Feature>Elections Transparency Act heads to governor’s desk

The New Jersey Assembly chambers at Gov. Phil Murphy's fiscal year 2023 budget address. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Elections Transparency Act heads to governor’s desk

Assembly, Senate pass controversial campaign finance overhaul

By Joey Fox, March 30 2023 3:35 pm

On a bipartisan but controversial vote, both chambers of the New Jersey Legislature passed the so-called Elections Transparency Act today; the bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy, who is widely expected to sign it.

The vote in the Assembly was 45-31, with six Republicans – swing-district legislators from the 2nd and 8th districts as well as retiring Assemblymembers DiAnne Gove (R-Long Beach) and Kevin Rooney (R-Wyckoff) – joining most Democrats in support. The rest of the Republican caucus was opposed, along with Democratic Assemblymembers Dan Benson (D-Hamilton), John McKeon (D-West Orange), and Cleopatra Tucker (D-Newark).

The Senate, which had already approved a slightly different version of the bill last week, approved the Assembly’s amendments on a 21-12 vote with lots of Democrats missing. (The bill briefly got stuck with only 20 yes votes, until State Sen. Sam Thompson, until recently a Republican, was prodded to vote with the Democratic caucus.)

If enacted, the Elections Transparency Act would make major changes to New Jersey’s campaign finance laws, including doubling campaign contribution limits, standardizing (and, in some cases, loosening) pay-to-play laws, creating new reporting requirements for independent expenditure groups, and allowing state and counties parties to maintain housekeeping accounts.

But the effects of the bill will be felt most immediately at New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), the state’s campaign finance watchdog, which has been in a pitched battle with the governor’s office for months. Under the bill, ELEC’s three current commissioners, all of whom are on holdover status, would be swept away and replaced by four new commissioners appointed directly by Murphy.

Those new commissioners would presumably work to oust ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle, who is at the heart of the governor’s feud with ELEC. Triggered by an insensitive email Brindle sent last year, the fight has since expanded to include an investigation by the attorney general’s office, a lawsuit, a public hearing, and the uncovering of a wide array of ill-advised emails sent by Brindle.

The bill also institutes a retroactive two-year statute of limitations on ELEC enforcement decisions for campaign finance violations. That would nullify many of ELEC’s ongoing investigations – including a high-stakes 2017 complaint against the state Democratic Party’s three main committees.

“Many of you, on both sides of the aisle, have expressed frustration with the timeliness of the movement of cases,” said Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees), the prime sponsor of the bill, in defense of the short statute of limitations. “I think the failure of ELEC to process these cases … is grounds to start to look for reforms.”

But Republicans, in alliance with progressive groups, have warned that doing so would hobble ELEC’s ability to issue decisions and provide accountability for violations.

“If someone can stand up and tell me how washing away eight years of violations is going to somehow bring transparency, I invite you to stand up,” Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville) said. “The truth is, not one person’s going to do it, because [it is an] undefendable portion of this bill.” 

Seemingly in response to such worries, Assembly leaders announced today that they will introduce legislation to give the agency an extra $1.5 million, a significant increase from its current $5.5 million budget.

Beyond ELEC, the Elections Transparency Act will mean that candidates competing for office this year and beyond will have access to quite a bit more cash.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Democratic legislators and ELEC leaders have both pointed out, New Jersey’s current individual contribution limit of $2,600 hasn’t been updated in two decades, and independent spending has grown dramatically since then. By increasing the contribution limit, proponents of the bill argue that candidates will be able to compete on a more even playing field with outside groups.

“The money hasn’t gone away – it’s shifted,” Greenwald said.

The bill’s independent expenditure reporting system, which mandates that outside groups file reports on contributions over $7,500 and all expenditures, also creates a level of accountability that is currently missing in New Jersey. (A similar state law was blocked by a federal judge in 2019, though, and it’s possible that this new requirement won’t survive legal scrutiny either.)

But for the bill’s critics, its positive sections aren’t nearly enough to wipe away its flaws.

“The tragedy of this bill is, New Jersey desperately needs transparency for dark money,” said Philip Hensley of the League of Women Voters. “But it can’t come at the expense of gutting our anti-corruption laws, gutting our campaign finance laws, and gutting ELEC’s independence.”

The brainchild of Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden), the Elections Transparency Act was first introduced in the legislature in June 2022. At the time, the bill was narrower in scope and did not include any provisions related to ELEC, but despite Scutari’s efforts, it didn’t make it through the full legislature in the two weeks before the summer recess.

In December, after many months in limbo, the bill re-emerged in an Assembly committee with little fanfare; then, in February of this year, it came up again, this time with new amendments related to ELEC and housekeeping accounts.

The amendments created an immediate commotion, particularly an amendment that gave the governor direct appointment power over ELEC’s executive director; Brindle’s email controversy, which had remained secret until then, was revealed soon afterwards by Politico NJ. Democratic leaders had wanted to hold a vote on the amended bill through just four days after it had been approved in committee, but facing defections within the caucus, they pulled it at the last minute.

That uproar led to the current version of the bill, which swaps out direct appointment powers over the ELEC executive director for temporary appointment powers over ELEC’s commissioners, who normally have to get Senate confirmation. 

The ultimate effect will probably be the same – but evidently the distinction was enough to win over skeptics and get the bill through the legislature.

This story was updated at 4:54 p.m. with a correction: Republican Kevin Rooney also voted in support of the bill. It was updated again at 10:12 p.m. to reflect Democrat Cleopatra Tucker’s no vote; Tucker had not voted in the initial tally.

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