January 20, 2021 | Number of The Day
Reduction in public contractor contributions to NJ’s ‘Big Six’ political committees in past decade

New Jersey’s so-called pay-to-play laws tightened the rules for political contributions by those who do, or want to do, business with New Jersey government; the first pay-to-play law took effect in 2005 but it didn’t limit contractor contributions to all Big Six committees until 2008. Those laws have had a significant effect on the bottom line of the state’s “Big Six” political fund-raising committees — the Democratic and Republican state parties and four legislative leadership committees. According to new analysis by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), between 1999 and 2008 the Big Six took in $23.1 million from law firms, engineers, accountants, construction firms and others with public contracts. Since then, such contributions have cratered: The total for the decade between 2009 and 2019 was $1.4 million, a 94% drop.

Analyzing individual donations, the commission found that between 1999 and 2008 the top 10 contract-donors — three engineering firms, six law firms and a construction firm — collectively gave $5.7 million to the Big Six. During the following decade, their contributions plummeted by 99.9% to $6,000, give or take a few dollars.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC, said, “Those who wanted to see contractor contributions dry up will be glad to know that, at least with the Big Six committees, pay-to-play laws worked.” But, he added, “The downside is it has made it much harder for party officials to raise money and that has weakened party committees.” Overall Big Six fundraising between 2009 and 2019, at $94.3 million, was down by 37% compared with the previous decade.

Another cause of the decline in Big Six funding, said Brindle, is the rapid growth since 2005 of independent spending committees. “Contractors now can get around the original intent of the law by simply cutting huge checks to those independent committees along with traditional political action committees. To make matters worse, many independent groups are ‘dark money’ committees, which hide the source of their funding,” said Brindle, who is advocating for a change in the law “so we allow contractors to give more to parties while sharply reducing what they can give to traditional PACs.”

The commission, said Brindle, “will keep pressing for state legislation that would require full disclosure of contributions, including those of contractors, to independent groups that take part in elections… If a party committee accepts a big check from a contractor, at least the public will know it. Party officials then can be held directly accountable if they exert undue influence over a contract… Today’s system takes away such direct accountability and enables contractors to exert their influence by donating to PACs and independent groups, making it harder to connect the dots between a contribution and a contract.”