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Where the Money Went: Spending by NJ Special Interest Groups

NJEA tops the list -- by far -- while power companies also step up.

It's the who’s who of lobbyists and special interest groups in Trenton, a voluminous report and database that details who is spending how much each year to try to influence legislation and policy.

And with a new governor in office and any number of hot issues dominating the Statehouse, the 2010 report released yesterday by the state’s election commission is a doozey.

Easily topping the list of big money is the nearly $7 million paid out by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) last year, the vast bulk of which went to media ads. The number dwarfs even the teachers union’s own prolific spending of the past.

Gov. Chris Christie has often cited the $7 million in his open attacks on the NJEA’s leadership, but now the total is confirmed and detailed by the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) in its annual report.

"It was unprecedented, but so is the severity of the attacks by this governor," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s chief spokesman. The buys included television, radio and print ads. "Our membership insisted on it, and our leadership did, too."

Still, even by national standards, it is a big sum for a statewide teachers union. The NJEA PAC also spent close to $700,000 last year, according to separate ELEC reports.

The California Teachers Association wins the race overall -- spending close to $200 million overall last year. But the NJEA’s total puts it up there with the larger New York state unions as well.

“That is a serious political investment,” said Joe Williams, a long-time observer of teachers unions nationwide and now executive director of Democrats for Education Reform in New York City. "New York and California may do more, but this is a staggering figure."

Yet beyond the NJEA, the report also shows the changing ebbs and flows of business in the Statehouse, with some of the same lobbying firms and groups continuing to dominate while others spent like never before. It especially was seen in the advertising and other communications campaigns, where spending rose close to 70 percent from the year before, the commission reported.

Also on the education front, No. 2 behind the NJEA in communications spending last year was Excellent Education for Everyone, the Newark-based advocacy group that has led the push for private school vouchers. It is listed as spending $460,000 last year on media buys.

Energy has risen in prominence, too, with three of the Top 10 special interest groups coming from that sector: Exelon Corp., PSE&G, and First Energy.

Exelon, the nation’s biggest operator of nuclear power plants, more than doubled its typical spending in 2010, dropping $860,000 -- half of it on media buys.

"We had just an unusual level of high-impact issues in New Jersey," said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for the Chicago-based company. He added that a big part of the expenditures were related to Oyster Creek nuclear power plant and its pending retirement.

Clean energy advocates, however, said the spending reflected the efforts of energy companies to shape the energy agenda in the state.

"Oyster Creek got settled in a way that was positive for Exelon, which gets to run it for nine more years, but which is not positive for the environment," said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey.

For years, environmentalists had sought to close the plant, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the plant a new 20 year-license two years ago.

Probably the most contentious issue in the energy arena during the past year was a bill that aims to spur power developers to build new generating capacity in the state. Signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie, the bill guarantees ratepayer subsidies to help developers get the financing they need to build new plants. Ironically, the bill was opposed by most power suppliers, who said it would disrupt wholesale energy markets and artificially depress energy prices.

To that end, the Competitive Power Suppliers, a coalition of energy companies dropped $348,179 on communications spending, according to yesterday’s report. Much of that went to pay for full-page ads opposing the subsidy bill in major dailies in New Jersey.

The owners of the state's two largest utilities, Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) and First Energy Corp., also ranked among the Top 10 spenders. PSEG parted with $640,272; First Energy, with $548,586.

Rick Thigpen, vice president of state government affairs for PSEG, attributed the spending to the rapid changes occurring in the energy sector: "The world of energy is constantly in transition. We are a very big company and what we do affects a lot of people."

For PSEG, the year was particularly eventful, with PSE&G involved in a highly contested rate case while trying to win, as it did, state approval to build a controversial high-voltage transmission line through the heart of the New Jersey Highlands. The company also is heavily involved in the state's efforts to increase the use of solar power and build an offshore wind farm.

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