Lobbying Dollars Down a Tad in 2016, Biggest Spending on Funneling Gas Tax to TTF

Colleen O'Dea | March 3, 2017 | Politics
The NJEA is no longer the top spender; bumped to second place by Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative and its efforts on behalf of Transportation Trust Fund

Lobbyists spent slightly less money last year trying to sway New Jersey lawmakers, government officials, and the public on topics ranging from funding road repairs to health insurance to wages and benefits, according to a study by a state watchdog.

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission reported $68.3 million in spending by lobbyists in 2016, about 2.5 percent less than the prior year. Last year’s preliminary tally based on annual lobbying reports filed to date still ranked as the third highest in history, with the $74.1 million spent in 2011. That was the year in which the state enacted pension and health benefit changes that forced public workers to pay more and the New Jersey Education Association spent a record $11.3 million, much in opposition to the reform.

‘Multimillion-dollar enterprise’ to influence state officials

Last year, nearly $3 million in spending by the teachers union made it the second biggest lobbyist, even though that was 71 percent less than the NJEA spent in 2015. The biggest spender in 2016 was the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative, which spent about $4.4 million, almost six times more than it had in 2015. A prime target of its efforts was a ballot question seeking to dedicate all the revenue from a gas-tax increase to the Transportation Trust Fund to cover road, bridge and rail projects. The measure passed.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC, said lobbying on transportation issues helped keep total expenditures high.

“Lobbying activity in the New Jersey State House tends to vary each year,” he said. “Even in the down years, efforts to influence state officials remain a multimillion-dollar enterprise.”

Forward NJ, which also backed the transportation question, was the 10th-biggest special interest group spender and its $545,000 in lobbying expenditures, added to the Engineers Cooperative, fueled a boost in transportation spending from ninth most-lobbied category to second. Lobbyists spent a total of $6.9 million on transportation issues last year, a jump of 133 percent over 2015. Only the catchall category of miscellaneous businesses spent more — $9.5 million.

Close behind were lobbying on healthcare, $6.1 million, and hospitals, $5.3 million. Added together with insurance and drug issues into a more generic category of health concerns, these would dwarf all other topics with more than $11.4 million in spending. Among the top healthcare issues lobbied were out-of-network insurance, paid sick leave, and telemedicine.

Number of lobbyists working in NJ dropped last year

Brindle said the topics under debate in Trenton “are like a kaleidoscope. The mix of issues changes every year. As a result, the amounts spent by various interest groups and their rankings fluctuate.”

The average number of lobbyists working in the state last year inched down by 2 percent to 935, well below the peak of 1,043 in 2008. The number of clients fell as well, by 3 percent to 1,950.

However, the amount paid to lobbyists rose significantly, salaries for in-house lobbyists increasing by 5 percent and compensation paid to outside agents up by 6 percent. In total, that represents $52.4 million paid to lobbyists. Communication expenses, which include amounts spent on ads or in other appeals to the public for or against a given issue, dropped by more than a quarter to $10.6 million despite $4.7 million spent by the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative and Forward NJ mostly on the gas tax question. Still, Brindle said these remain a “big part of the lobbying arsenal.”

Despite the multimillion dollar spending by the Engineers Cooperative and NJEA, most groups’ lobbying expenditures pale in comparison to the state’s lobbying firms. For the 14th year in a row, the firm with the most receipts was Princeton Public Affairs Group Inc., which reported just over $9 million. Public Strategies Impact LLC was second, with about $6.4 million. Both are politically connected and employ a number of agents who worked in government or held public office.

Lobbyists who raise or spend more than $2,500 in a year must file a report by February 15 that summarizes their income and spending for the prior year.

NJ’s Biggest Special Interest Lobbying Spenders in 2016

Organization Amount Change from 2015
Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative $4,392,830 +487%
NJ Education Association $2,996,028 -71%
Prudential Financial Inc. $801,786 -1%
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of NJ $778,403 +25%
Verizon NJ $770,769 +8%
AARP NJ $734,931 -57%
NJ Hospital Association $710,322 +37%
Hackensack Meridian Health $611,140 +6%
First Energy/JCP&L $559,599 +3%
Forward NJ $545,692 -42%

Source: NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission