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State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez at Gov. Phil Murphy’s FY2024 Budget Address. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Elections Transparency Act returns, with palliative amendments

Cruz-Perez abstains, while Republicans still united in opposition

By Joey Fox, March 16 2023 5:17 pm

Two weeks after scheduled Senate and Assembly votes were canceled due to concerns over last-minute changes, the wide-ranging Elections Transparency Act returned today with new amendments, passing the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on a largely party-line vote.

If enacted, the bill would represent a massive overhaul of New Jersey’s campaign finance laws: it doubles most contribution limits, institutes a reporting system for independent expenditure committees, allows state parties to create housekeeping accounts, and standardizes (and in some cases weakens) pay-to-pay laws regulating government contracts.

Most controversially, the bill would significantly reshape the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), the state’s campaign finance watchdog. 

When the bill got pulled from the agenda in February, the biggest concern was over a new amendment that would have made the ELEC executive director a position appointed by the governor. In the version of the bill that passed committee today, that provision is gone, but it’s been replaced with one that would have a similar effect.

ELEC’s four commissioners, who have the power to choose the executive director, are currently subject to senatorial approval. The bill would instead make them appointed directly by the governor and sweep out the three current commissioners, all of whom are on holdover status; it would also establish a $30,000 stipend for commissioners.

ELEC deputy director Joe Donohue testified today that the change to appointment procedures – which expires after 90 days, after which the normal method of nominating commissioners would resume – is uncalled for and would deal a grievous blow to ELEC’s independence.

“This provision would be unprecedented in ELEC’s 50-year history,” Donohue said. “It erodes the commission’s independence from politics – independence that has earned it national credibility and has been supported by five previous Democratic and five Republican governors… What is the emergency that requires the suspension of normal statutory procedure?”

The attempts to make ELEC more directly answerable to the governor seem to be the result of a feud between current ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle and Gov. Phil Murphy’s office, which unsuccessfully tried to force Brindle out over an insensitive email. Brindle filed a lawsuit just today detailing the entire saga.

Another ELEC-focused provision, instituting a statute of limitations on campaign finance enforcement decisions, remains in the bill despite opposition from ELEC. Donohue said that many of ELEC’s decisions come outside the two-year window, and that such a provision would fundamentally gut the body’s enforcement capabilities.

“This severe restriction would have a devastating impact on the commission’s enforcement capability, potentially scrapping 80% of the agency’s current active cases,” Donohue said.

There are a few other amendments that passed the committee today, most of which respond to specific critiques leveled against the bill in February. One adds 501(c)(6) organizations to the list of independent expenditure groups covered by the bill’s reporting requirements; another significantly reduces the contribution limits on housekeeping accounts.

But most of the bill remains the same, with Republicans and progressive organizations still banding together in opposition. All Republican legislators on the committee voted no today, while State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Barrington) abstained, saying that she was still sorting out the implications of the bill and looking to potentially make amendments.

“It’s a lot to digest,” Cruz-Perez said. “I’m working with the Senate President on the amendments I’m looking for… I want clarification, I want to understand what we’re doing here.”

It’s possible that Cruz-Perez’s abstention is a reflection of qualms from the South Jersey Democratic organization, which generally operate as a unit and may be seeking changes to the bill. 

Also expressing some mild skepticism was State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro), who voted yes but said she “hopes to do some further work on” certain parts of the bill, particularly its pay-to-play provisions. Committee Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), acknowledging that some Democrats still have issues with the bill, indicated after today’s hearing that yet more amendments may be coming.

“The sponsors of the bill are making changes to alleviate concerns of various members,” he said.

This is now the third attempt at getting the Elections Transparency Act through the legislature, after failed efforts in February and in June of last year. Like the first two attempts, opposition to many of the bill’s core components is still very much present; the question will be whether it’s enough to deny legislative leaders the votes they need to finally pass it.

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