Even at $90M, Lobbyist Spending in 2018 Dips to Lowest Level in Four Years

Colleen O'Dea | March 14, 2019 | Politics
More than 950 outfits filed lobbying reports with Election Law Enforcement Commission, but public still has no window into spending at local level

Spending in 2018 to influence New Jersey lawmakers, the governor, and the public sank to the lowest level in four years, even as a new administration took office.

Annual lobbying reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission indicate more than 950 companies, organizations, and lobbying firms spent almost $90 million last year, about 2 percent less than in 2017. Although the deadline for filing reports was February 15, late filers could still boost the total. But it may be tough to top the $91.7 million spent in 2017.

The commission’s database shows six public agencies hired lobbyists, spending about $338,000 last year. The largest expenditure was $104,000 spent by the Bergen County Utilities Authority. Monmouth County spent $90,100, Brick Township’s MUA spent $60,000, and Trenton, Wildwood, and Essex County each spent less than $50,000. In the past, though not required, some public agencies did report such spending; in 2012, public bodies spent more than $556,000 on lobbying. But this sort of reporting was not required until 2017, with the enactment of a law that had been pushed by ELEC.

Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, said the commission continues to ask for legislation that would require those who lobby at the local level — city and county officials, for instance — to file annual reports on their activities. That is not required today.

“Our main thrust is to see that lobbying taking place on local governments be reported,” he said. “We believe a lot of that is happening now.”

Lobbying daily

Lobbying is a part of everyday business in Trenton, and many groups spend between a few thousand and several hundred thousand dollars each year to keep track of legislation that could affect them and try to get legislators or bureaucrats to take actions that would be more beneficial to them. But spending on influence fluctuates from year to year, based in part on the issues being debated at the time.

“Depending on what the hot issues are in any particular year, you can have individual groups getting more involved,” Brindle noted. “It’s an ebb and flow.”

The big money

Last year, a few issues drew major spending:

  • more than $5 million supporting or opposing the plan to subsidize PSEG’s three nuclear reactors in New Jersey, which was approved and could wind up costing utility customers $300 million a year;
  • almost $1.4 million for or against marijuana for medicinal purposes, which the state has expanded, or for recreational use, whose approval should be up for a legislative vote this month;
  • some $875,000 by firms seeking to build wind turbines — from Cape May to Asbury Park — off the Jersey coast.
  • In 2017, the PSEG subsidy battle also raged and the company spent close to $2.4 million, only to fail in getting legislation passed that year. Last year, it spent almost $1.5 million — about 37 percent less — but was successful when Gov. Phil Murphy signed several energy-related bills, including the subsidy, into law last May.

    Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, the state’s largest health insurer, was the largest single spender in 2017. It spent more than $2.5 million — its largest expenditure ever by a sizable margin — in part to defeat former Gov. Chris Christie’s attempt to use up to $300 million of the health insurer’s reserves to help fund a program to prevent abuse of opioid painkillers.
    Last year, without such a contentious battle, the insurer spent only about a fifth as much, or about $430,000.

    PSEG: the top spender

    Despite reducing its lobbying expenditures last year, PSEG was the top spender, excluding lobbying firms.

    The Engineers Labor Employer Cooperative was the second-biggest spender, laying out in excess of $970,000, more than double what it had spent a year earlier. The cooperative supports public funding for transportation projects and lobbied on various legislation involving bidding and contract rules, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

    Hackensack Meridian Health, the state’s second-largest health system, spent $846,000 in 2018. That represents an increase of 55 percent over the prior year. Hackensack and Seton Hall University opened a new medical school, the state’s first private medical school, in Clifton and Nutley last year.

    According to ELEC, the 50 entities that spent the most on lobbying last year were responsible for slightly more than a third of the money spent by represented entities, which are not lobbying firms, or a total of $21 million. The biggest sectors were energy, hospitals, and insurance. Brindle said these areas are often at the top of the list because they are often hotly debated by lawmakers.

    ‘Benefit passing’ dips to new low

    The amount spent by lobbyists on what is known as “benefit passing,” which is giving gifts like meals, trips, or other things of value, dropped to a new low in 2018 at $2,331. That’s a 99 percent drop from the 1992 benefit-passing peak of $163,375. Legislators’ trips to tropical islands and golf vacations, among other gifts paid for by lobbyists and business interests, made headlines and drew an outcry from good-government groups, which contributed to a steep decline in this type of spending.

    “These days, it seems, it is more normal for public officials to pay for lobbyists when they meet,” Brindle said.

    Number of lobbyists

    According to ELEC, the average number of lobbyists working during the year rose 2 percent to 922 in 2018. Despite the uptick, it was 12 percent below the peak of 1,043 lobbyists in 2008. At the same time, the number of clients who paid lobbyists fell to 1,915, a 7 percent drop from the peak of 2,077 in 2012.

    For the 16th straight year, Princeton Public Affairs Group Inc. reported the most receipts among multiclient contract lobbying firms, taking in $9.14 million from 200 clients that included the controversial PennEast Pipeline, the company developing the Newport mixed-use community in downtown Jersey City, and Google. Its largest payment — $361,305 — was from The Balloon Council, for whom PPAG lobbied in opposition to a bill, S-2468/A-3784, that would prohibit the intentional release of helium balloons. That legislation has been introduced but has not received a hearing in either house.

    Another interesting lobbying report was filed by New Direction New Jersey, the group backing Murphy’s agenda that has come under fire for refusing to disclose its funders. The organization is a 501(c)(4) grassroots organization that is not required to provide information about who contributes to it, but its founder, Essex County Freeholder President Brendan Gill, had pledged to do so in late 2017 when announcing the organization. As a result, legislation has been moving quickly — pushed by Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who has been feuding with Murphy — to require such dark-money groups in New Jersey to disclose all contributions of at least $10,000.

    New Direction, which has run two ads in support of Murphy’s policies, reported spending a total of $503,750 last year. The lion’s share, $412,000, was for cable ads, while $91,250 was attributed to internet costs. Another $534 paid for travel and lodging.