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Transparency Bills Take Aim at Lobbying, Presidential Tax Returns

Lobbying legislation has already passed Senate unanimously; measure dealing with candidates faces rougher road, including possible legal challenge

Loretta Weinberg
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.

Lawmakers in Trenton have launched two very different efforts aimed at improving government transparency: one aimed at lobbyists and the other at candidates.

The latter (A-4520) is New Jersey’s own stab at making sure candidates for president cannot refuse to release their income tax returns, as Donald Trump did. The bill would prohibit candidates from being listed on the New Jersey ballot unless they release five years of tax returns. But even if it passes both houses, it is not likely to get the support of Gov. Chris Christie. What’s more, it’s not likely to stand up in court, legal experts say.

The lobbying bill (S-1404) has a better chance of passage. Sponsored by Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the measure passed the Senate last week in a unanimous vote. It would require lobbyists to report the amount they are being paid by a governmental body or college on a state form that would indicate they are representing such a client.

“Towns and counties have access to state government officials on any number of issues, so when these entities hire a lobbyist to advocate on their behalf, the taxpayers should have access to that information, including the amount paid for these services,” said Weinberg. “The same should be true if the state hires a governmental affairs agent.”

Currently, lobbyists have to file a notice of representation form with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission when they take on a new client or contact a high-level state official on behalf of the client. The form describes what the client’s business is and what the lobbyist expects to do for the client, but do not include any payment amounts, which are filed on annual reports.

Weinberg’s bill would require that the lobbyist also report the amount paid by a state or local government agency, department, board, bureau, commission, authority, board of education, institution of higher education, or other governmental entity. The result would be that the amount would be made public sooner. ELEC also would have to post these forms on its website.

“This provides transparency in these kinds of arrangements and accountability of public entities that enter into them,” said Weinberg.

According to her office, at least five states require some similar type of disclosure for lobbying on behalf of public or governmental bodies.

A review of the 2015 annual lobbying reports filed with ELEC, the most recent available, found at least 16 municipalities, schools, authorities, and public colleges had paid roughly $500,000 to lobbyists that year. These ranged from $2,625 spent by The College of New Jersey to $97,500 by Monmouth County.

Jeffrey Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, said the commission backs the bill and would like to see even greater accountability for lobbyists involved with local issues.

“We support it; we have even called to go beyond it,” he said. “When lobbyists lobby on local government issues, that should be reported. Right now, they only have to report when they are lobbying on the state level. We would like to see lobbying at the local level disclosed, as well. We know a lot of that is happening.”

Weinberg’s bill next needs Assembly approval.

Assembly Democrats John McKeon and Troy Singleton last week introduced legislation in the Assembly that would prohibit candidates running for president and vice president, and only for those two offices, from being placed on the ballot in New Jersey unless they submit their five most recent years of federal tax returns to the state Division of Elections.

“Donald Trump has eschewed at least 40 years of tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, raising an untold number of questions and possible ethical dilemmas,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). “Making the returns public would clear up any questions about whether a candidate is indebted to any foreign states or accepting any emoluments from them. This is an issue of national security as well as transparency. If Congress is unwilling to address this, hopefully other states will follow our lead.”

Under the bill, each candidate would have to submit their tax returns and written consent for the public disclosure of the returns no later than 50 days before the general election or their names would not appear on the ballot. The division would then post the income tax returns on its website within seven days of their being filed.

But some lawyers have weighed in on the issue and believe this effort would likely be thrown out by the courts as overreaching.

“It’s up to the federal legal system to determine substantive qualifications for president,” said Stephen Edelstein, a Whippany attorney with expertise in election law who served as transition counsel for Christie’s 2009 transition. “This would be a substantive requirement.”

He said states can make such nonsubstantive requirements as specifying the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot. The only “substantive” federal requirements to running for president, as spelled out in the Constitution, are to be at least 35 years old, a United States resident for 14 years, and a natural-born citizen.

New Jersey is one of several states in which a bill requiring the release of tax returns is now pending.

“Beyond simply the issue of transparency, there are many reasons why a presidential or vice presidential candidate should release their tax returns,” said Singleton (D-Burlington). “Voters deserve to be armed with the whole truth before they make such a weighty decision. Since the Republican leadership in Congress is unwilling to do anything about it, we will take matters into our own hands in New Jersey.”

The bill is now pending before the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

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