Special interest spending fueled by pro-Democratic unions continues to flow largely unchecked in New Jersey, according to a new analysis that shows the top 25 “pressure” groups spent more than $74 million last year trying to influence elections and policy.
The analysis released Wednesday morning by the Election Law Enforcement Commission highlights the shift away from traditional spending in New Jersey to the more loosely regulated world of campaign finance that allows public contractors to skirt the state’s pay-to-play laws.
Moreover, the finance watchdog’s findings draw attention to the consistent lack of action by lawmakers to strengthen transparency in lobbying and elections despite repeated efforts by the commission to do so.
With more than 628,000 members, New Jersey has one of the highest concentrations of union membership in the country. And Democrats, who have controlled the Legislature since 2001 and now lead the executive branch under Gov. Phil Murphy, received $15.8 million from union-led political action committees, or PACs, last year, according to the commission.
That made up a bulk of the $20.3 million Democrats received from PACs, according to the commission. By contrast, the commission said Republicans received $1.2 million last year from union-led PACs.
Phil Murphy, shown casting his ballot on Election Day along with his son, Sam, promised during his campaign that he would work to legalize marijuana in the state. (Photo: Bob Karp/@photopup)
Labor unions have traditionally used PACs as their main source of political spending, and they are subject to spending caps and quarterly disclosure reports.
But special interest spending through virtually unregulated independent groups has become the “preferred weapon” of seeking influence, said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the commission. The $41.4 million in independent spending by the top 25 special interest groups last year well exceeded the $28.9 million spent by PACs on state and local elections, according to the commission.
The $74 million in total special interest spending last year — combining election contributions, lobbying and independent spending — was 34 percent more than the $55 million spent in the previous gubernatorial and legislative election in 2013, according to the analysis.
“This is more reason why the Legislature needs to enact ELEC-recommended legislation that would require independent groups to fully disclose their campaign finances while also seeking to strengthen political parties and greatly simplify pay-to-play rules,” Brindle said in a statement. “Pay-to-play reform would sharply reduce the amount public contractors could give to PACs.”
The leading special interest last year, as it was in 2013, was the New Jersey Education Association. It serves as an example of the shift in spending methods over the past decade.
The association, which is the state’s largest teacher’s union, contributed $8.5 million through independent spending last year compared to $951,000 in political contributions and $512,000 in lobbying, according to the analysis.
The next three top special interest groups — which are tied to Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney — spent about $20 million through independent spending and none on candidate contributions or lobbying, according to the analysis.
Those groups — General Majority PAC, New Jerseyans for a Better Tommorrow and the Committee to Build the Economy — are known as 527 political committees, which are tax-exempt and can accept unlimited amounts of money. Although they are not required by state law to disclose donors, those three groups have.