A bill that would require workers to be covered by sick leave was the focus of the most intense lobbying of any New Jersey legislation last year, while health issues in general were lobbied more actively than other category, such as education or the environment.
Those facts were included for the first time in a report from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), which shines a light on the number of groups interested in specific bills, as well as the number of official contacts these groups had with legislators and officials at state agencies.
One of the things the report revealed is that the bills that are the most aggressively lobbied aren’t necessarily the ones that receive the most public attention.
The top 15 bills in terms of the number of organizations that lobbied for them did include some prominent measures, such as the 2014-2015 state budget (S-2015/A-3482), which was second to the paid sick-leave bill. The controversial legislation that would allow physician-assisted suicide A-2270/S-382], was tied for seventh.
But other intensely lobbied bills didn’t receive as much attention. For example, a proposal that would require doctors to inform patients how to dispose of unused prescription drugs (A-709/S-2370) was fifth in terms of the number of organizations lobbying for it. A bill that would require power companies to prioritize the restoration of power to hospitals and nursing homes during outages (A-1071/S-2128) was tied for sixth.
“Just because a particular bill or issue gets the attention doesn’t mean that it’s the most lobbied” said ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle. “A lot of these bill were kind-of under the radar in terms of public awareness or news reports, but were in fact very important to a lot of constituencies.”
“I think it’s very important for the public to know (and) to have this kind of information available,” he added.
There were more than twice as many officials lobbying contacts — such as phone calls, letters, and meetings — made regarding health issues than any other area, with education second and insurance third.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities led in the number of official contacts, followed by nursing union JNESO District Council 1 and the New Jersey Builders Association.
League Executive Director William Dressel said that his organization comments on roughly 2,500 bills every legislative session.
“We are experts on local government — we know what impact these kinds of policy changes are going to have on the community — and we try to identify those kinds of problems before a bill becomes a law,” he said.
Brindle said ELEC officials knew that healthcare was important, “but this report really points out how much of an emphasis and focus there is.”
While lobbyists have been including information on legislative contacts since the early 1980s, the report released yesterday was the first time that ELEC diced and sliced the information by bill, category, lobbying organization, and state agency being lobbied. Kyle Morgan, a doctoral political-science student at Rutgers University, compiled the data.
Brindle said ELEC hopes to issue similar reports annually.
The paid sick-leave bill (A-2354/S-785] was lobbied by 69 organizations making 294 official contacts, including many powerful groups that lined up on both sides. It’s been released by the Assembly Labor and Budget Committees, but hasn’t been voted on by either house.
Stefanie Riehl, vice president of employment and labor issues for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said the lobbying activity over the paid sick leave bill “clearly reflects the importance of this issue for the business community and (the state) at large. This is an issue that impacts all companies from the mom-and-pop stores to the Fortune 500 companies.” The NJBIA opposes the measure.
“It really casts a wide net and unlike other pieces of legislation, it does not go after one industry or one sector,” she said.
New Jersey Policy Perspective President Gordon MacInnes said he was somewhat surprised that the paid sick-leave bill would be lobbied harder than the budget. However, he added, lobbying by its nature can be a behind-the-scenes business.
“The way lobbying frequently works is that the bills you’re most concerned about do not receive public attention — and that’s why people hire lobbyists,” said MacInnes, who supports the sick-leave bill.
Other health-related bills that received intense lobbying included measures that require prescribers to monitor prescription-drug activity and to mandate that health insurers encrypt patient data.
As chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) is often at the receiving end of lobbying over health issues
He said he was “a little surprised,” that health would be so dominant when it came to lobbying.
“I never thought of it in that context,” Vitale said, adding that it makes sense given the number of ways that health-related laws affect people.
Riehl agreed: “Health is truly an issue that transcends all industries, all companies. Every company we speak with is concerned with the high cost of healthcare.”
Open-government advocate Craig Holman said he found the report unique in the way it explored lobbying in terms of the number of official contacts, rather than just the amount of money spent.
Holman is a lobbyist himself for Public Citizen in Washington, D.C.
Holman added that in some ways the number of contacts provides a more accurate depiction of lobbying, since wealthy companies and organizations can spend more than less-well-financed efforts.
“We actually get a very clean and clear numerical picture” of how many times public officials heard from lobbyists in the ELEC report, said Holman, who helped write New Jersey’s pay-to-play law.