Op-Ed: It’s Time for New Jersey to Enact a ‘Dark Money’ Law

David Goodman | February 20, 2019 | Opinion
The imbalance between the power of ‘dark money’ groups and accountable political committees is staggering. Is legislation that would throw light on secret contributions being stalled?

David Goodman
On a cold wintry Sunday in February, several scores of everyday New Jersey citizens left the comfort of their homes and usual routines for a church theater. They arrived ostensibly to watch a PBS documentary “Dark Money.” But, it was more than movie-going. These concerned residents, some expressing outrage, are wondering how long stealthy secret money, funneled through arcane mechanisms like 501(c) 4 and 527 funds, will be permitted to go unchallenged to corrupt our politics and elections and to threaten democracy.

They heard a special guest, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset), one of the sponsors of a reform bill (A-1524) describe the legislative process. They asked pointed questions, not always answered to everyone’s satisfaction. But they left with more information and a renewed commitment to get something done about the scourge of “dark money” in New Jersey.

This small band of ordinary folks — 50 or so — crowded into a small theater in February is a microcosm of many more voices that demand to be heard in the Legislature and State House in Trenton. We, Represent New Jersey, are organizing them. Who are we and what are we attempting to do?

We are one of 41 chapters of Represent.Us, the fastest growing anti-corruption organization in the nation today, currently active in 21 states across America. Our total membership in New Jersey is about 18,000 across all platforms, including social media. We have an email list of about 6,000 subscribed members. And, we have 1,000 New Jersey members who have taken some sort of action, such as signing a petition and sending an email to a legislator. In short, we are active and engaged.

Two issues concern our members the most: to end partisan gerrymandering and end secret “dark money.” For us, they are two sides of the same coin. Both are corrupting our politics and threatening the integrity of our elections.

We know that running for office will always cost money, but the imbalance between the power of secret “dark money” groups and accountable political committees is staggering. Here’s the data:

‘Dark money’ grows

Between 2005 and 2017, independent group expenditures (aka “dark money”) on legislative and gubernatorial elections in New Jersey increased by 11,550 percent. In 2005, these committees spent $411,224. By 2017, they spent $47.5 million — or 25 percent of the total expenditures that year.

We need to end secret money in New Jersey! So, where are we?

During the first days of 2019 progress looked good. On January 17, the Senate’s version of a “dark money” reform bill (S-1500), co-sponsored by Sens. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), was approved 12-0, on a bipartisan vote, in the Budget and Appropriations Committee. Two weeks later, on January 31, the Senate voted 31-0 to add an amendment barring officeholders from serving on these independent expenditure groups.

With those outcomes and unanimous votes, S-1500 looked to be on track for final approval in the Senate and, then, onto the New Jersey Assembly for its action. While rumors of a Senate vote were rife, in recent days it’s been “radio silence.”

What’s stalling the bill is not entirely clear, but one thing should be: The genie is out of the bottle. The citizens of New Jersey, in large and vocal numbers, want a law to shine light on “dark money” funds and disclose their donors — individuals, corporations, and unions.

The message to our political leaders in Trenton is simple: “Dark money” legislation should not be seen as “inside baseball” in politics any more. And, it’s also not a matter of whose ox gets gored. Instead, we want a law with bipartisan support that can make New Jersey proud. And, we have the numbers of everyday people who will stand behind that claim.

The time to act is now.