As NJ scrambled to deal with pandemic, lobbyists took aim

Action on the budget topped a regulator’s new list of lobbying activity. So did bills related to COVID-19
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
File photo: New Jersey State House

Nothing generated more intense lobbying during the current legislative session than a spending bill lawmakers passed last year on the heels of the worst months of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a new report released by the state’s top lobbying watchdog, the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, the budget enacted for the 2021 fiscal year has produced the most “official contacts” between lobbyists and lawmakers during the two-year legislative session that ends in January.

Lobbyists interests in measures related to the pandemic went beyond the budget legislation. Bills dealing with the state’s response to COVID-19 — including some on regulating telehealth visits and benefits for workers — spurred some of the most intense lobbying activity since the current legislative session got underway in January 2020, according to the election commission’s analysis of quarterly reports submitted by lobbyists.

What $32.7 billion spending plan means for taxes, borrowing, credit rating and the potential for reforms — including of public-worker benefits

When last year’s spending bill was coming up for votes in the State House, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration was projecting steep revenue losses would be triggered by the pandemic and was preparing to sell bonds without voter approval to offset those losses. The money was borrowed but the losses never materialized.

Several taxes were also raised last year to help bring in even more revenue needed to support a year-over-year spending increase in the face of the health crisis. And many elements of the state’s traditional budget-approval process were impacted by the pandemic, fueling concerns about transparency and public oversight.

Close to 500 contacts with lobbyists

In all, the fiscal year 2021 budget bill was the reason cited for more than 480 separate official lobbying contacts, according to the election commission.

Meanwhile, the spending bill for the 2022 fiscal year — which also allocated more than $2 billion in federal pandemic aid to things like rental assistance and special education — generated the second-highest total of official contacts during the current legislative session, at 273, according to the election commission.

Jeff Brindle, the election commission’s longtime executive director, said it is “not a surprise” to see budget legislation draw the “most intense lobbying.”

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the state’s revised nine-month budget bill Tuesday with historic spending

“All budgets contain thousands of other programs as well that affect the lives of virtually every New Jersey resident,” Brindle said.

“What makes the current session unusual is that billions of dollars in the two adopted budgets was targeted at the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

“While there is no exact way to gauge the impact of the virus outbreak on lobbying, reports filed with (the election commission) suggest the pandemic has been a major focus during the latest legislative session,” Brindle said.

Top issues for lobbyists

In addition to policing elections in New Jersey, the Trenton-based election commission is also required under state law to monitor state-level lobbying activity. Reports that lobbyists submit to the commission on a quarterly and annual basis disclose who is lobbying lawmakers in Trenton, and for what specific purpose.

In all, during the current legislative session, more than 16,400 official contacts have been reported in those quarterly filings.

An official contact can be anything from a meeting with a legislative sponsor or their aide to an email a lobbyist sent to all 120 lawmakers urging them to take a specific action on a bill, according to the commission.

More than 12% of the official contacts that were reported in the lobbyists’ quarterly filings were related in some way to the health crisis, according to the election commission, demonstrating the pandemic’s impact on the state and its government since the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in New Jersey in March 2020.

Among the nonbudget bills that generated the highest number of official contacts was legislation related to so-called telehealth services that are provided virtually instead of through in-person contact with a doctor.

Also ranking in the top five was legislation related to workers compensation and other work-related benefits provided to employees who were performing essential services last year when they contracted COVID-19.

Among the groups that have lobbied lawmakers the most on pandemic-related issues is the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, according to the election commission.

Industry experts predicted the move would cost jobs while harming investors

The NJBIA’s efforts have come as many companies, including many small businesses, have faced economic hardships in the wake of shutdown orders and other restrictions that were put in place by Murphy as part of a broader effort to slow the spread of new COVID-19 infections in New Jersey.

Rounding out the top five for pandemic-related lobbying are the New Jersey Hospital Association, New Jersey Education Association, Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey and the New Jersey Bankers Association, according to the election commission.

But other legislation unrelated to the health crisis has also drawn the attention of lobbyists since the current legislative session got underway early last year.

Lobbying for abortion rights

A measure seeking to protect and expand abortion rights in New Jersey and legislation seeking to impose a new state-level tax on high-speed Wall Street transactions that are processed within the state’s borders are among those that also made it onto the list of bills that have generated the most official lobbying contacts during the current legislative session, according to the election commission.

But unlike the budget legislation, many of those measures have yet to reach the finish line in Trenton.

The intense lobbying for last year’s budget came at the same time lawmakers adopted several temporary policies as a public-health precaution, triggering major concerns about government transparency amid the pandemic.

Lawmakers’ emergency measures included holding virtual budget meetings with key administration officials and shelving altogether public hearings on the governor’s proposed spending plan in favor of accepting comments only in writing from the public.

The latter move prompted several groups to cry foul and stage their own public budget “hearing” last year to air specific concerns about Murphy’s spending proposals.

The transparency issues carried over into the latest budget-approval process, which played out several months ago as a spending bill for the fiscal year that began on July 1 was quickly introduced and voted out of the Legislature, all within a matter of days.

Though comprehensive, the election commission’s latest statistics on lobbying activity don’t capture all of the ways that lobbyists and lobbying firms can attempt to sway lawmakers’ opinion on specific pieces of legislation.

Details related to so-called grassroots efforts that are organized and mounted with public advertising campaigns are not disclosed in the quarterly reports, but instead will be covered in lobbyists’ annual reports, officials said.

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