Hard to believe, but we're only a few months away from another campaign season. Soon, instead of complaining about the dreary weather, we'll be bemoaning the election ads that cram our mailboxes, interrupt our TV shows and robocall us during dinner.
With races that include the governor and all state Senate and Assembly seats, it should be a record year for campaign spending in New Jersey. And voters have a right to know who is footing the bill.
Last week the Assembly Government Committee moved to plug a gaping hole in the state's campaign contribution disclosure laws. It sent to the full Assembly a bill, A3863, that will require issue advocacy groups to disclose their donors and report how the money they raise is spent.
The bill addresses independent tax-exempt groups such as those formed under sections 527 and 501 of the Internal Revenue Code that can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
These groups don't have to disclose where that money comes from, even though they have become a huge force in state - and national - politics. In 2009, when the governor and Assembly were up for election, independent groups spent $14 million in New Jersey. Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, said he expects that figure to reach $25 million this year.
And, Brindle said, "Without passage of this bill, most, if not all, of this money will be spent anonymously."
Why does that matter? Because if you want to know to whom your officials are beholden, you have to follow the money. Without disclosure, advocacy groups can be used to circumvent state and local pay-to-play laws, which ban businesses that receive government contracts from contributing to public officials who make decisions about those contracts . A couple of recent examples illustrate the point.
In 2010, the independent group Reform New Jersey Now advocated for Gov. Chris Christie's legislative agenda by paying for mailings and phone calls in Democratic lawmakers' districts and spending more than $600,000 on radio ads. When the group succumbed to public pressure and voluntarily revealed its donor list, the top donors included companies that had been awarded hundreds of million of dollars in state contracts.
Similarly, a look at New Jersey political action committees, some of which do have to disclose their donors, shows that they are often funded by large checks from contractors, engineering firms and insurance brokers who are barred from making direct contributions to candidates. These PACs, in turn, donate to the politicians who award contracts, effectively side-stepping pay-to-play restrictions.
That's a shameful practice, but at least with PACs, voters can see what's going on behind the scenes. The full Assembly and Senate should pass this bill, which would help voters connect the dots with the other kinds of advocacy groups that funnel money into campaigns.