Home>Governor>Murphy signs controversial Elections Transparency Act into law

Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his State of the State address before a joint session of the New Jersey Legislature on January 10, 2023. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Murphy signs controversial Elections Transparency Act into law

Bill gives him immediate power to reshape New Jersey’s campaign finance watchdog

By Joey Fox, April 03 2023 3:39 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy has signed the Elections Transparency Act into law, bringing about major changes to New Jersey’s campaign finance regulations as well as to the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), a state agency dedicated to regulating money in politics.

The bill had passed the state legislature last week, over the fierce objections of Republican legislators and progressive groups. Many of those same groups implored Murphy to veto the bill, but that was never a real possibility.

The press release announcing the bill’s signing did not include any comment from the governor.

With the stroke of a pen, Murphy will now have the ability to directly appoint four new ELEC commissioners, bypassing the Senate confirmation process that is usually required – an ability that will expire after 90 days, after which the nomination process will go back to normal. Last week, after the bill had passed both houses of the legislature, ELEC’s three incumbent commissioners all resigned in protest, pre-empting their inevitable ouster.

The feud between ELEC and the Murphy administration was caused by Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, who had sent a number of insensitive emails to subordinates and coworkers. Brindle refused to resign when ordered to do so by top Murphy staffers, so the Elections Transparency Act represents something of a workaround; once Murphy appoints new ELEC commissioners, they will have the ability to force Brindle out.

Murphy did not name any new commissioners today, though his appointments will likely come somewhat soon. (Until then, ELEC will have to operate with no governing body, meaning that it can’t release any decisions.)

ELEC’s statute of limitations for campaign finance enforcement complaints is also changed by the new law. ELEC will now only have two years, down from ten, to issue decisions and fines, and all complaints more than two years old will be scrubbed – including a potentially high-dollar complaint against the state Democratic committee from 2017.

Beyond ELEC, the law makes a number of other important reforms, including its namesake provision: requiring more transparency from independent groups, who will now have to report contributions over $7,500 and all expenditures. That will force significantly more accountability from outside groups, though similar provisions in a 2019 law were struck down, so there’s no guarantee the new requirements will stand up to court scrutiny.

Also designed to address independent spending are provisions doubling most campaign contribution limits, meaning that state legislative candidates will have quite a bit more money to throw around in this year’s elections. Proponents of the bill argued that such a change was necessary to keep up with the huge amount of money flowing in from outside groups, but opponents countered that the answer to money in politics shouldn’t be more money in politics.

And the law makes yet more important changes: sunsetting local pay-to-play laws regarding government contracts and standardizing such laws statewide; allowing state and county parties to create housekeeping accounts; and making a number of other edits to reporting requirements and deadlines that will be felt throughout this year’s election and beyond.

The act was first introduced last June, with Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden) as its chief advocate; at the time, it had a narrower scope and did not include any ELEC-related provisions. Scutari pushed for it to pass almost immediately, but in the vast shuffle of budget season, it failed to make it through either chamber.

In February of this year, the bill re-emerged, with sweeping new amendments that would have made the executive director of ELEC a position appointed by the governor. The bill was on track to pass the legislature just a few days after the amendments were made, but after widespread outcry, it was derailed again and sent back to committee for more amendments.

Those further amendments, as it turned out, were minor, switching out the executive director provision for one allowing Murphy to temporarily name new commissioners while otherwise leaving things largely the same.

The changes were evidently enough to assuage nervous legislators, who approved the bill soon afterwards. Across both chambers, nine Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while four Democrats voted against it.

Those who opposed the bill argued that, despite its name, it would result in a less independent ELEC and a less transparent government overall. Now that the bill is law, it’s time to find out whether such fears turn out to be correct.

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