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Picking Their Fights, Lobbyists See Spending Soar

NJEA spends $11 million in battle with Christie to top list.

It’s a whopping sum, more than $11 million spent by the New Jersey Education Association last year in its lobbying and communications efforts -- mostly public battles with Gov. Chris Christie.

The vast majority of the money was spent on television and other advertising. It dwarfed the next highest sum broken down by New Jersey Election Enforcement Commission yesterday. That was the $1.2 million spent by Verizon NJ.

NJEA’s spending was a record amount, almost a sixth of all the money that went to lobbying last year. And it was one that both Christie and the union itself seized upon -- albeit with different intentions.

“I feel badly for teachers who are paying dues every year to have that garbage put on the airwaves,” Christie said yesterday. “Is this what they want it spent on?”

Christie once again called for the union’s leadership to be replaced, calling NJEA president Barbara Keshishian and executive director Vince Giordano “abject failures in representing teachers in this state.”

The union said it was money well spent, mostly for its “Millionaires for Christie” campaign last spring that involved TV and radio ads, billboards, and even planes pulling banners along the Jersey Shore.

“This is not something we normally do -- not something we budget -- but our members rose up and said we must fight back,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director.

“He’s wrecking public education,” Wollmer said of the governor. “That will be his lasting legacy unless he is countered.”

The NJEA's spending wasn’t the only newsworthy finding in the annual report by the New Jersey Election Enforcement Commission (ELEC). The report lists the top special interest groups and also the lobbying firms that are contracted to represent these groups and others.

Princeton Public Affairs Group Inc., a Trenton-based firm that boasts being the largest state-lobbying firm in the country, collected more than $8.4 million in receipts.

Spending overall soared to $73 million, an 11.2 percent increase over 2010, the ELEC said in its announcement. It was the fourth straight year that total expenditures by lobbyists were up.

In a surprise result, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, came in third among special interest groups in communications spending at $564,218, behind only the NJEA and the AFL-CIO.

The conservative group spearheaded efforts to convince the Christie administration to pull New Jersey out of the regional greenhouse gas initiative, a 10-state cooperative to reduce emissions that contribute to global climate change.

In a move that drew criticism from clean energy advocates and Democratic lawmakers, Christie pulled New Jersey out of RGGI last spring, although the move did not take effect until the end of the year.

The group has been active in New Jersey in the past, but never to the extent that it was in the past year. Previously, the group had lobbied against bond issues to preserve open space and farmland. All but $7,240 -- which went to travel and expenses -- of the total $571,458 spent by Americans for Prosperity was allocated to communications.

Besides opposing RGGI, Americans for Prosperity also lobbied against proposals aimed at developing an offshore wind industry off the coast of New Jersey, a priority of the administration and lawmakers. The lobbyists contend the wind farms will spike electric bills for ratepayers.

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