‘Dark money’ bill breezes through Senate but may face legal and political issues

Who paid for the ad that promotes Gov. Phil Murphy’s progressive agenda? Trenton lawmakers think you ought to know. Thursday the Senate voted 31-0 to pass and send on to the Assembly a bill that would shed light on so-called dark money groups like a Murphy ad from New Direction New Jersey. It’s a 501(c)(4) run by a Murphy ally.

“This has led, quite frankly, to a system that is dominated by a modest number of wealthy special interests who shape the political funding landscape,” said Sen. Troy Singleton. “A web of clandestine entities that live in the shadows of our political system with benign-sounding names designed to conceal donors’ identities and their true intentions from the public.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney fast-tracked the dark money bill in January, further ratcheting up political tension with Murphy after New Direction New Jersey broke its promise to voluntarily unveil its list of donors. The measure would compel 501(c)(4)s to disclose expenditures over $3,000 and name people who contribute more than $10,000 to influence elections, bills, regulations or public questions. Election officials say dark money threatens to swamp politics.

“I have called it the Wild Wild West of campaign financing. I think that pretty much describes what’s happening with the trend recently in New Jersey,” said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

But advocacy groups like the ACLU warn that the bill as written quashes people’s first amendment right to give anonymously.

“Which is something that controversial organizations like the ACLU, or LGBT rights groups or abortions rights groups have to deal with. It’s something we value sacredly,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha.

The ACLU might sue if the bill becomes law. Others object to a provision that makes the bill retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018. One senator said that’s not really fair.

“I think it’s a good bill, but I think the citizens have a right to know that once they comply with the law we will not come back and change the law on them,” said Sen. Nia Gill.

Another late amendment bans elected officials from running 501(c)(4)s. That’s widely viewed as targeting Essex Freeholder Brendan Gill, Murphy’s former campaign manager and the guy who heads New Direction New Jersey. Gill had no comment. The governor has said he looks forward to reviewing the bill. It’s now in Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s hands. He supports the bill’s basic concept and “ … is continuing to meet with stakeholders and will continue to review and discuss the legislation with members of his caucus,” according to his spokeswoman.

“I don’t know if there’s too much politics in this, or if there’s too much of a political motivation in this. But what I can say is that legally there are very serious concerns about this. And I think it would make sense for the Assembly, which now has the power to make or break this bill, to think really carefully about what they want to do and whether or not they want to face the legal consequences if this bill passes,” said Sinha.

Coughlin’s negotiated compromises between competing political power bases in Trenton before. This bill is apparently going to require a lot of work.